Sixteen years ago I wrote an article in my high school newspaper titled "They Might Be Giants Simply Are." I can't say for sure if the article was a hit or not, frankly I'm not too keen on the statistics of how well-read my music reviews were at the time. You can check out that article here. The point is, in those 16 years and adding on the years that I've been a TMBG fan, not much has changed in the way of that headline. They Might Be Giants are still giants. They are still creating new music, they are still tweaking our imaginations and frontal lobes. They still, 30 years since their conception, simply are.
What has changed for us longtime fans is us. We've grown up, we've gotten older as they have and have families of our own. There might have been a point where we wondered if the music of TMBG was still for us anymore. That point lasted about as long as Data's decision to side with the Borg Queen. The music of TMBG hasn't necessarily aged with us, rather it has transcended the tags we'd apply to music or bands that have been around 30 years. Not only adapting to new technologies, the group has continued to tour with fervent energy, keeping us (and them) feeling younger in the process. It's hard to imagine that over that span of time they haven't influenced anyone--they have, whether they recognize it or not.
One thing I've noticed with talking to artists over the years is that they don't always want to immediately point out or even recognize their influence on others, and that's fine. That comes from an area of ultimate humility and being thankful for where they are. The guys of TMBG are no different. While they are one of my major influences, part of the "Holy Trinity" as John Linnell called it when we spoke (the others being Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut), they have also held not only creative but musical influence for many others as well. After 30 years, that hasn't changed and it's my guess that the people they influence the most are themselves.
To sum up 30 years of making music and being a band is not an easy task. So I didn't do that. The guys over at TMBW.net have that covered pretty well. Instead, I asked some folks out there in the world, creative types, what TMBG has meant to them. Personal stories of happiness and creative influence permeated the comments, a running theme being how positively energetic the band has been over the years. I caught up with TMBG as they rolled through Tampa, Florida, on their recent tour. Before they totally rocked the stage, performing the entire Lincoln album (and a good dose of new songs) I was ushered onto the tour bus to speak with John Linnell. We didn't talk long, as they had to get ready for the show, but we talked. I rarely "squeee" about interviews, but getting to talk to the John Linnell, who I grew up listening to and loving, was a pretty awesome experience.
It made me think about first times when it comes to TMBG. The first time I heard them was back in 1993 or so, after hearing the album Apollo 18 at a friend's house. The first time I saw them in concert, well, my memory is a little fuzzy on that one but I'm guessing 1996 or so. The group Gravel Pit opened for them and all the songs performed were off their 1996 album Gravel Pit Manifesto. All of it came rushing back, the time when I was 15 and took a train with my mom and brother to Pennsylvania, having only Flood to keep me sane. Listening to "Birdhouse in Your Soul" still makes me think of Amtrak.
Singer/songwriter Marian Call has a much better "Birdhouse in Your Soul" memory, which John Linnell found to be "super touching" when I relayed it to him:
I never got to see them live until I was a senior in college. I flew my brother from Seattle to California so we could see it together. We loved their new material, but the moment they began playing "Put a Little Birdhouse in Your Soul" both of us spontaneously started crying. It might have been the most overwhelming nostalgia for childhood I've ever experienced. I don't know why it reaches me so powerfully, but I do know that no other pop music has that power over me.
Music does have that power over us, but with TMBG it's much more than just the music. It's the spirit and the irreverent lyrics. It's how they perform with sock puppets in their live show. It's how they can produce children's albums with the same irreverent lyrical and musical style, yet they are considered educational. They have been able to transcend the classical school of thought when it comes to the segmentation of music, reaching across and holding on to fans from many generations.
For some of us, the influence provided by TMBG affected the course of our lives. Take radio show host Bill Childs. The creator and host of "Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child" was so influenced by TMBG that he aimed to create a program that had the same message, that is, to engage and just create good radio:
I'm not sure exactly when the first time I saw TMBG was. It was at First Avenue in Minneapolis and it was probably one of the two shows that TMBW.net reports they did in 1992, though it might have been 1990. It was a pre-full-band show, that much I remember, and I remember being blown away that, even without a full band, they could be that wildly entertaining live. I expect that by now, I've seen them more than any other band--certainly over twenty times, short of the true obsessives but still a lot--and they've remained for me an icon of just how creative an act can be and how well they can remain totally engaged and innovative with their music.
Much later, they were fundamental to me starting a family music radio show. From the very start, we've started and ended every show with TMBG, as my daughter Ella insisted. (She actually wanted to start and end every show with "Dr. Worm.") Similarly to their influence on my view of music (and art) generally, their approach to music made me focus on doing a show that was good radio, period, that happened to be aimed at kids. That's meant programming it in a way that (hopefully) makes musical connections and treats kids as intelligent beings--and doesn't condescend.
A year or so into doing the show, I got an email from Flans. I'd met him once (after a Navy Pier show, he actually consented to having his photo taken holding my then-infant daughter), but that had been the extent of our interaction. In the email, he said that the band was interested in doing the theme song for the radio show. Ultimately, they actually did three songs--one I use at the start, one (very short one) at the end, and then another ("Don't Spare the Rock") we use at the start of the "Are you prepared to rock?" set when we pull out the songs with distorted guitars and the like.
Getting that offer, and what I chose to interpret as an endorsement of the radio show, was a huge affirmation for us. That my kids and I have gotten to hang out with the band in subsequent years has been pretty amazing too.
When I spoke to John Linnell, he was pretty clear that from his point of view, it was hard to fathom the influence that they have had over others. To them, they are just doing what they are doing. It made sense to accuse them of being influential without realizing that they feel instead that they are simply also being influenced by others. It would be selfish of them, and less than humble I suppose, to shout from the top of the tour bus "We influence the masses! Bwuahahahaha!" Instead, John was humble in his reply, citing a recent example of influence:
The difficulty with that question is that I'm pretty much the last person to ask. John and I were just eating lunch in this place down the road and they were playing this Modest Mouse song and it quotes verbatim a line from a They Might Be Giants song. I said to John, that strikes me as really odd, first I was unaware that it was even in there, and number two it just seemed an odd thing to do. John said, but you've quoted other people in your lyrics. I was like, yeah, but that's different because they are icons, the line quoted, everyone knows it's from an icon. Then John said, maybe that's what Modest Mouse thinks. I don't know, that was one of those things that I thought was possible, but I couldn't fully accept that idea.
This past weekend I was sitting in on my friend Michael White's art class. It's a class for children, a class I took 17 years ago, but I was just hanging out. They were practicing 2D vs. 3D drawings and talking about drawing stars. One of the super literal nerds up front started arguing about the shape of stars, so Mike asked the class what stars were made of. Suddenly, one of the older boys (around 15 or so) started awkwardly singing the entire lyrics from "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)." I just sat in the back and smiled. This kid is 15. Think of other groups that have been around 30+ years, would you find their music being quoted on the weekends in an art class by a teenager?
Take this sentiment from Ireland based GeekDad John Madden. His teen years were defined by music similar to mine, through classic rock and current pop standards, but the introduction to TMBG changed the way he'd consider and listen to music:
For me they were kind of a gateway drug to alternative rock.
Most of what I listened to in my early teens was pretty safe pop stuff. I loved my parents' old records too--my dad has lots of Beatles, Stones, The Who, Queen and Zeppelin; my mum has lots of big band and country stuff--but most of my friends were either into metal or hard dance stuff, neither of which I liked that much. When I first heard TMBG--probably Flood, although I remember getting older albums later and recognizing a few songs--I loved them; easily accessible pop tunes with clever and funny lyrics.
Back then Tower Records used to get American newspapers, usually about a month late, and one day I spotted a Village Voice with a big feature on the Johns. I bought it, read it--cover to cover, which was educational to say the least--and made mental notes to watch the show they'd mentioned as being due to host: MTV's 120 Minutes, as well as to check out bands mentioned in the interview (and in their songs) like The Replacements, The Residents, Young Fresh Fellows, etc. It became kind of a Sunday night ritual to watch 120 Minutes waiting for their hosting gig--which never actually aired, but by the time I realized it wasn't going to happen I had all these other bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, The The, Pearl Jam and Nirvana (and many of their peers) to get excited over.
Two years after that happened, they played Dublin supported by the exceedingly strange and funny Brian Dewan, and I got talked into bringing my then 10 year old sister. When she recalls that concert, she says "Thank you for warping my mind, and saving me from years of boy bands."
So a lifetime fan was born, then passed on to the next generation. Which, unlike groups like the classic rock ones that Madden mentioned, TMBG has a bit more of a translatable and relatable style of music and lyrics that a new generation can easily latch on to. Another reason why they've been able to maintain for so long: There are a lot of differences between say, John Henry and The Spine and Join Us but at the same time the similarities are there. It's the same band, but they have adapted to the changing world of technology and music. To see their live show is to experience the full energetic explosion of a much younger band. They could easily hold court on a major tour.
For some though, TMBG is much more than just an influential part of their lives. TMBG is their life. Such is the case of Brad Will, proprietor of TMBW.net, the go-to source for everything TMBG including a fully stocked Wiki with more than you ever wanted to know about the band. Brad though, unlike a lot of TMBG fans, didn't get into TMBG until almost two decades into their career, but he was hooked:
Interestingly enough, I didn't really get into TMBG until relatively late, compared to a lot of people that I know. I started listening to them in 1999 when a co-worker brought in Then: The Earlier Years and a few other discs. I was instantly drawn in by the music, the lyrics, and the sheer volume of their work. Looking back, I think it was the massive nature of their library that was so compelling to me. Most bands have a few albums, a couple singles, maybe a remix here or there. But, with TMBG, there was so much to listen to, and it was all excellent. And once you think you've heard all of They Might Be Giants' catalog, then you discover the existence of Dial-A-Song, live bootlegs, leaked recordings, and on and on. The more I listened, the more great gems I discovered.
The co-worker (Scott) and I started putting together lists about TMBG songs. I don't know why, but it was just fun (and yes, looking back, nerdy). But, we would put together a list of TMBG songs that reference coffee or bicycles, etc. After a while, we decided that we had put all this information together, and we should find a mechanism to let other fans edit the lists. Scott had the idea to use a wiki, before 99% of America even knew what a wiki was. It was all really innocent, and neither of us had any idea the site would take off like it did.
After launching the site, I felt that this would be a great vehicle to help preserve some of the history of the band. I think TMBG has some really unique aspects to their history, and as fans we owed it to them, to help archive it. TMBG "grew up" in the age before everything was digitized, and as a result, I feel it is my responsibility (as the site admin) to help record the history before it gets lost forever.
Over the years, my musical tastes have grown up and changed a lot. But, TMBG is one of those bands that I always will come back to. Their new music is always enjoyable. They could be one of those bands that sits back and just cashes in on their old hits. But, instead they continue to re-invent themselves musically, while always remaining true to their roots.
Always remaining true to their roots, but at the same time moving forward. A combination that many artists struggle to maintain. This creates this ever changing field of influence, but no matter the influence, Linnell still takes the high road of not wanting to rub it in our faces. He admits that it's still a concept after all these years that he's not fully able to comprehend. I've heard this from many artists, that influence is really difficult to quantify when you are the one influencing, unless you have a massive ego and you search out for bits of your influence in society. Linnell doesn't take this path:
I don't know, to me I think we're the only people who can't perceive our influence or see it in perspective in the world. When somebody says that we are, that we did influence them or some other band, I'm always surprised. I don't see it, I don't get it. I don't see how that relates to what we're doing. It's one of those weird perception problems.
I have trouble perceiving that influence, because we're so close to what we are doing that if somebody else is doing their version of it, it's automatically not clear to me. I heard that David Bryne was deliberately trying to do sort of a Randy Newman vs. Alice Cooper thing when he wrote "Psycho Killer" but nobody but David Byrne would be aware of that if he hadn't said what it was. The main thing that song sounds to me is just David Bryne.
So if I didn't cite TMBG as one of my major influences, you wouldn't know that they are without searching through my body of work to see where their style influenced mine. You'd have to listen to their entire body of work to compare. There is nothing direct, I can tell you that now, but the way they approach music and lyrics has worked its way into the way I approach fiction and many of my jokes. Their ability to create associations where there are none have found their way into my subconscious.
One of the songs on John Henry exemplifies this for me the most. The song is "A Self Called Nowhere" and I'm sitting on the curb of the empty parking lot of the store where they let me play the organ. I'm waiting for my ride, but I want to wait inside the store where they let me play the organ. But I'm thinking of a wooden chair in the room at the top of the stair, and I'm looking down the stairwell...--you know the rest.
GeekMom Jenny Williams raised a good point in her response to TMBG, that not only are their lyrics sometimes silly, sometimes meaningful and romantic but they are geeky too. They are something we can associate with. I'm pretty sure that "Pet Name" ended up on more than one mix tape in our pasts, given to a girl/boy who responded with raised eyebrows:
I believe I discovered They Might Be Giants in 1990, when Flood came out. I quickly started listening to their earlier stuff as well, loving it, but also enjoying the fact that only a handful of my friends had heard of them. Their music is sometimes silly or geeky or meaningful or just downright unusual, which is a combination to which we geeks can always relate.
Author and GeekDad contributor Ethan Gilsdorf shared that geeky sentiment, as he spoke about returning to the world of geekdom after a long absence. I would have to think that his novel Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms might have been party influenced by the feeling of camaraderie in the geek world with TMBG as the soundtrack:
I saw them as well--twice--once in Western Mass probably 15 years ago, once in Portland, Oregon, about two years ago. The latter was a perfect concert, mainly because I was just returning to geekdom after some years away from the fold, and they were a reminder how cool it was to be a geek. All smiles from me during that concert.
If there is any doubt left about the influence felt and inspired by They Might Be Giants it can be put to rest by the following sentiment from independent musician Marc With a C. Marc's music, while maybe classified as "pop folk" is very odd to say the least. His lyrics are true to life, meaningful and full of weirdness. If TMBG has sunk into only one person's subconscious (obviously not so) then that person is Marc. I actually ran into Marc at the concert in Tampa, where he had traveled from Orlando to attend. I could tell he was having a rough time lately, little did I know what an impact going to the TMBG show would have:
Just last month, my personal life was in a really bad place. Long term friendships were crumbling, and it was all that I could think about, day and night. Some really good pals of mine (that are also huge fans of the Johns) surprised me by showing up at my house unannounced and offered, nay, demanded that I go and see a They Might Be Giants concert that would be happening about 85 miles away from the town we were in. They argued that it'd be a good distraction, and also reminded me that I didn't have any choice in the matter, so I might as well get into the van willingly. It turns out that there is no better medicine for a bad day/week/month than going to sing "The Mesopotamians" at the top of your lungs with a venue full of like-minded people. The badness quickly melted away, and absolutely nothing happening outside of that space mattered, and it hasn't started mattering again since.
So how does it end? After 30 years They Might Be Giants continue to find unmatched success. From working with Disney, to continuously touring to releasing new albums, they show no sign of slowing. At the same time, neither do we. We keep pumping along, working steadfast on our lives and creative endeavors and TMBG is there every step of the way. Their music easily found its way into our souls, and we get to watch as new fans are created every day. For every one of us long time fans, there is some 15 year old kid holding a copy of Join Us like he or she is the only one that has discovered such a treasure.
Lincoln came out in 1988, yet most of the crowd singing along with the songs were certainly not born until 1990 at the earliest. They have probably been fans for less than a decade, yet have no issue quickly adapting to the older catalog. For TMBG, this keeps them young, with a continuously building fan base because us older fans aren't going anywhere, that's for certain. I look forward to everything They Might Be Giants do in the coming years, and know that nothing they have ever done will be forgotten. Congrats on 30 creative, amazing and mesmerizing years guys, here's to 30 more.
"Time, is marching on. And time, is still marching on."