Massive Potential

Brooklyn iconoclasts They Might Be Giants have been following their wonderfully idiosyncratic muse for over three decades now without respite. One half of the core duo, John Linnell, admits to Steve Bell that they don't really know how to stop., April 17, 2013
by Steve Bell

Quirky, unconventional, madcap, eccentric, oddball, geeky--the list of potential adjectives to describe the career of John Linnell and John Flansburgh as alternative behemoth They Might Be Giants is virtually endless, such has been the volume of distinctive music and breadth of leftfield activities and experiments that they've conducted over the course of their fascinating career since they started following their steadfastly comic (and somewhat avant) muse back in the early-'80s.

They've sold millions of albums, won Grammys, branched (incredibly successfully) into kids' music, scored TV shows and even been at the forefront of digital music dissemination, all without watering down their delightfully unique personas and vision. It can be boiled down to a shared sense of the absurd that intrinsically links the two Johns, a random chemistry that's as unforced as it is undefinable.

"I don't think we know how to do it artificially," smiles Linnell of the organic nature of the pair's creative union. "Although in some ways of course it's artificial, its music, but I don't think we know how to calculate what we're doing. We certainly don't know how to second guess other people and decide we know what people want--we're so far away from doing that, that we really do have to rely on our own instincts. We're still doing more or less what we've always done, which is making records that we ourselves would like to buy and listen to. Obviously we can't do everything--there are plenty of records that we like that we ourselves are incapable of making--so this is a narrow category of stuff that we like and we can make."

They Might Be Giants started out basically as two friends trying to amuse each other and gradually morphed into a band, and their live show has made similar focal shifts over that time, eventually becoming an integral part of their appeal.

"Yeah, it has become [important]," Linnell concurs. "Of course it became that a long time ago, but we started out as anything but a live act. We were shut down in the basement with a tape recorder, and that was our ultimate dream at the time--we thought that this is what we want to do, sit and make recordings. When it came time to consider performing live we came up with a show that pretty much just enabled us to do the home recordings onstage--we had a tape recorder playing and we sang over that and played instruments, we were just reproducing our own home taping set-up in a live way. It took us about ten years for us to back into playing with a more traditional rock band set-up. Of course once we did that, that's what we became, and that was almost twenty years ago."

And the two Johns are naturally proud of what they've set in motion, although Linnell's not quite sure how they're going to eventually slow the They Might Be Giants juggernaut.

"I think there's a mixture of pride and shame," he laughs of the band's career. "It's a little crazy; I'm not sure how you wind down. I'm a little concerned that we're heading to that ultimate heart attack onstage or heart attack on TV or something like that. I don't know why, but for some reason it's a disturbing thought--I guess it's either that or quietly fade away, and you just have to pick one. We'll see. I'll try and be graceful when it happens, I'll try to work it into the show."