Dialing in with They Might Be Giants

The Horn, May 11, 2015
by James Roberts

There aren't a lot of bands like They Might Be Giants. For over three decades, these purveyors of the finest in "nerd rock" have been bucking trends and following the beat of their own drummer with album after album of wildly imaginative, boundary pushing pop-rock that has no comparison nor equal. While never quite managing to achieve "mainstream" success, they've created a monster of monumental proportions, leading a veritable army of adoring fans through the phases of their lives with no hint of slowing down.

Their 18th album, Glean, just dropped earlier this year and there's no indications of wear and tear on this band, fronted and led by the partnership (and friendship) of the two Johns: Linnell and Flansburgh. I had the chance to catch up with Linnell while on break from their current "An Evening With They Might Be Giants" tour to discuss their longevity as a band and their history of embracing the ever-changing face of the music industry.

I was thinking about your phone hotline, Dial-A-Song last night, and it's interesting to me because the concept almost seems kind of quaint in today's age and yet it's still so novel. Nobody else is doing it, nobody else has ever done it. Is it bizarre that it's still something that's popular and still something that people want?

To the extent that people want it, yes. The original idea of it was quaint. I think it was already a very homely concept in 1983 or whenever it was we started doing it. I think a lot of bands would think that there was something a little too hokey about having a telephone line that you call to listen to a song. It didn't maybe seem as edgy as a lot of things that bands would do. In some ways it's really not so much about being edgy. It has a sort of personal touch. I think that's why it appealed to us. It's like saying to people, "you could just call us up and we'll play you a song." Thinking about it over the years, I think we sort of thought maybe that's a good thing to keep in people's minds, to remind them that this is sort of at the heart of what we're doing. Trying to make people feel like we are their band, you know? You kind of make a choice to listen to a band and it's a personal choice and it feels kind of intimate when you can call them up and listen to their songs.

I think that's evolved well over the years. Speaking as a fan, not as a music writer, I've always kind of felt like I've had a personal relationship with They Might Be Giants and I think that that's one of the most interesting things about the band is that all of your fans seem to kind of have that same feeling.

Yeah, I agree. I would say that's something we're sort of aware of and that we wanted to promote, is that people felt like we were a personal discovery they had made. Obviously, we were not forced down anyone's throats; we were never that mainstream enough for that to be the case. So I think we wanted to exploit that aspect of it, that partly what you're getting is something kind of personal.

It's also interesting to me because They Might Be Giants have always embraced technological change. From Dial-A-Song to the first ever MP3 only album to the iPhone app and now the relaunch of Dial-A-Song. There's so much pushback from the industry and bands these days about the changing format and the change in listening habits. You guys though are always first to embrace it.

I think that we're in some ways as nostalgic about the past as everybody else. I kind of miss the 70's, you know? [laughs] But maybe part of what happened for us was that we had to make choices when the scene was shifting around. Part of it was we got dropped from Elektra and we were no longer on a major label in the mid-90's, so we had to figure out what we were going to do next. There was a company called e-music that approached us and said "we'd like to do a download only MP3 release." It was not our idea but we thought that sounded like exactly the right move for us at the moment. A lot of things have kind of happened like that. I would say that we were generally not ahead of the curve of technology but we were kind of aware of what was going on. So I think we really have a lot of affection for the old formats, I would say. But we can see what side of the bread the butter is on.

Do you think the willingness to embrace the time and the technological format changes has had anything to do with the longevity of They Might Be Giants?

I think the longevity is really about not seeing any benefit in quitting. I think John and I, we certainly explored, without breaking up the band, we explored putting out our own solo projects. We were curious about doing other stuff on our own. I think ultimately it felt like the most satisfying thing either of us gets to do is They Might Be Giants. We couldn't really imagine some other thing that we're being cheated out of by playing in this band. I don't know if whether that is what motivates bands to break up. I think there's a lot of reasons why bands break up. But we never had any major interpersonal problems and I think we still feel like we are greater than the sum of our parts. That's really the definition of a functioning band. Another thing is, we were adults when we started. John and I were both well into our 20s when we got signed and we were both nearly 30 when we got signed to a major label. Maybe that's also a factor, that we kind of had a more clear idea of what the possibilities were by the time we were that far into it. That we were not starting out as teenagers with the usual uncertainty and confusion that you have when you're that age about what to expect.

Looking back on all the years They Might Be Giants has been together, I would think there would come a point where it just gets harder and harder to mine the creative well. Yet you guys always seem to just dig deeper and deliver consistently original output. How do you maintain that freshness after almost 35 years?

I certainly don't take it for granted. I don't think John does [either]. It's really hard to write songs. I wish it were easy. It's really hard to write songs when you've written a lot already because you don't want to repeat yourself. So I think we accept the fact that it is not ever going to get easier and you have to just apply yourself extra hard each time out of the box. We both have had lots of periods of struggling and there's a lot of false starts when you're writing. It sounds kind of grim but we take it very seriously. We don't want to blow our standards because people like us.

So switching gears a little bit, what can you tell us about this current tour?

We are doing a new thing, which is--it's not a radical change, by any means--but we are taking a break in the middle of the show. The show's slightly longer. We play for about an hour, then there's about a 20 minute break, and then we come out and play for another hour and change. I think there's something very satisfying about that. People get a chance to go get a beer and rest their ears, and we come out and we're refreshed. It's nice. We're the only [band] on the bill. It's "An Evening With They Might Be Giants." We don't have an opening act, so this format makes sense.

Are the two sets radically different? Like is one set older material and the next from the new record or do you just split the show down the middle.

No, they're just two parts to the whole. They're not themed in any way. It's just the two halves of the show. In some ways they're like two miniature shows. I guess it's sort of like side one and side two?

Does a format like this take a lot out of you as a live musician or do you just coast on the fun?

I'd say we coast on the fun. It's work but this is what we do. I think we know how to do this. When we first get out, on the first day of the tour, there's usually a little bit of confusion and if you see the first show, if we've been off the road for a while and you see us on the first day, you'll probably notice that we're looking at our hands a little more and there might be some concentration going on. Some furrowed brow. But by day two or three we're in the groove of it and we feel like we're back to normal and it's very comfortable.