Talking new instruments and old technology with They Might Be Giants' John Linnell

Boston Globe, April 25, 2018
by Zoë Madonna

“Within our band, if we’re getting into a taxi, pretty much to a person everyone’s like, ‘Could you please turn off the music?’”

That’s what They Might Be Giants’s John Linnell says during a recent phone interview. “We try and be nice about it, but that’s the vibe. We don’t like music.”

Take it with a grain of salt. The two core members of They Might Be Giants, Linnell and John Flansburgh, met as teenagers in Lincoln and formed the band after reconnecting in Brooklyn a few years later. They have poured more than half their lives into creating eclectic, razor-witted songs, this year releasing a 20th studio album, “I Like Fun.” 

But after decades of studio albums, live shows, and the inimitable Dial-A-Song service, which for years played exclusive recordings for anyone who called the band’s answering machine, it seems logical that they might want to make like Depeche Mode and enjoy the silence every so often. 

The band’s tour brings them to the House of Blues on Friday. Presumably, they will play music. Before a show in Kentucky, Linnell spoke to the Globe about new instruments and old technology.

According to the fan wiki, you play more than 20 instruments. When you want to pick up a new instrument, when do you know that you’re ready to play it live or on the album?

Part of this is that we felt like we didn’t need permission to be [expletive] at playing an instrument. That really came out of the punk ethos. Also, there’s no such thing as mastery. The final moment of your mastery over an instrument never comes. So you might as well just start playing. Just declare yourself an instrumentalist from the beginning.

What’s your newest instrument?

In the show that we’re doing right now, I’m playing a metal paper-clip-shaped contra-alto clarinet. I had a wood contra-alto clarinet that I was playing before that, but it was too fragile to bring on the road. So this feels like a new thing. 

What inspired you to revive your Dial-A-Song service, in all its various incarnations?

I suppose it was a matter of the technology coming back around, in a way. We had what we thought was a pretty good system back in the ’80s, and that technology kind of gave way, so we couldn’t run Dial-a-Song as cheaply and easily as we had been able to. We tried going over to a computer system in the ’90s, and it didn’t work. So, along came the Internet, and sometime in the 21st century, it seemed like it would actually be pretty easy to start running the whole operation online. We’re really doing Dial-A-Song as a more high-end thing now. In the ’80s, we had more low-res recordings that were on a phone machine. Now we put a new song out every week during the periods when we’re running Dial-A-Song, and these songs have been given top level spit-and-polish at the recording studio. 

Let me clarify: In the old Dial-a-Song, you would call and you’d hear a song played at you through the phone.

That’s right. It was sitting in Flansburgh’s kitchen, and if he was home he’d just hear the thing start up. Occasionally, we had people leaving messages. So you could hear people reacting to the song, and that could be exciting or demoralizing. Famously, there’s this recording that was a result of this woman listening on a conference call with another person. I don’t think they thought they were being recorded, so they had a conversation that lasted about half an hour. You can listen to the beginning of that recording on the collection “Miscellaneous T.” It’s a really fascinating, long rap, from this woman named Gloria who’s trying to puzzle out what she just listened to. 

Did you ever meet Gloria?

No, we never found out who she was! Though I was once in a bookstore in Brooklyn, and there was somebody talking and it sounded exactly like Gloria. She had this thick Brooklyn accent.

Going back to “along came the Internet”: With the current status of the music industry and the world of streaming music, do you think there’s room for young bands who want to have as much versatility, or ownership of their sound, or creative freedom as you had?

Yes. You can absolutely do that now. It’s sort of an open question how far you can get, because it’s hard to make money selling music. I think that part was easier when we were doing it. But you can do a lot of do-it-yourself stuff now that we couldn’t do. It’s much easier to make nice-sounding recordings at home than it was when we were starting out. That didn’t stop us. We were perfectly happy to make lo-fi recordings at that time.

The question is how anyone is really gonna find out about it. It can be very public, and no one can know that it’s there. That’s the main difference. Your recordings are all available to every single person in the world on the Internet, but there still has to be some sort of promotional engine behind it. That part, I would say, I know less about now than I did.