Brooklyn’s They Might Be Giants have been putting a different spin on alternative rock for over 35 years. Through musical experimentation and lyrical wordplay, John Linnell and John Flansburgh write songs that are accessible to both the casual listener and the sonic enthusiast.
This has been a big year for the band, with the release of its 20th album, “I Like Fun,” and the return of the band’s famed phone service Dial-A-Song. They Might Be Giants will bring their current tour to a sold-out Columbus Theatre in Providence on Sunday, Oct. 28. The performance marks Linnell’s return to the city where he honed his chops.
“We don’t necessarily have a practical impulse when it comes to writing songs and recording them,” Linnell says of their prolific output. “It’s just something we’ve liked doing since long before we made any money doing it, and certainly long before we had an audience.
“We started out imagining and fantasizing that we could at least garner an audience, but we didn’t really know what the potential was for making a living. I think for a long time we’ve felt like if the bottom fell out of this gig, which it hasn’t for over 30 years, that we probably would still continue to write songs. It’s probably just an old habit, something we started doing for no good reason. It’s something we were compulsive about.”
Before They Might Be Giants, Linnell was involved in Providence’s music scene in the late 1970s as part of a new-wave act called The Mundanes. He was living in Boston but had a friend who knew one of The Mundanes’ founders, John Andrews, a student at Brown University. “I was a teenager who wasn’t from that scene and I didn’t know anybody from Providence.”
Linnell spent about three years with the group.
“I played keyboard and saxophone in The Mundanes and the nice thing about the band was at that time, in 1978, there weren’t really any new-wave bands in Providence, none that had a foothold. We were playing at Lupo’s and places like that. We were the band that was appropriate to put on as an opening act for the big touring bands that came around, like the Talking Heads and the Ramones.”
The experience proved crucial to Linnell’s formative years as a musician. “I learned a lot about songwriting from playing in that band. It was my first real professional experience, so I learned a lot from Andrews and his partner Dean Lozow. They were really creative and interesting songwriters who were very engaged in what they were doing. There were a bunch of other great musicians in the band, so it was a really great thing for me starting out.”
Dial-A-Song started in the mid-80s after Linnell broke his wrist in a biking accident and Flansburgh’s apartment was robbed. It stopped in 2008, only to be revived this year in connection with the release of their new album.
“There was a brief period early on where we were using an old-fashioned answering machine to broadcast the They Might Be Giants Dial-A-Song,” Linnell says. “A lot of people would just hang up after they heard the song but occasionally we would get people saying either something encouraging or something unpleasant and mean. One in a blue moon we’d get these really odd ones.”
One in particular became part of They Might Be Giants lore.
“These people were on a conference line and they were talking to each other and one of them phoned up Dial-A-Song,” Linnell recalls. “Then they listened to the song and because they were on a conference line they didn’t have a way to hang up, so whether they were aware of it or not, the Dial-A-Song machine just recorded their conversation for the next hour or so. The conversation wasn’t about us, it was mostly them talking to each other.”
The conversation later made it onto one of the band’s records.