Interview with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants

Strange Advice, August 1998
by Stephanie Bird

I was just looking at your web page and I saw that you are coming to San Francisco on the tenth of September.

Um, that's right, we're going straight to the House of Blues that weekend, and stuff, but we're going down the coast. We're starting in Seattle in the beginning of the week and working our way down, that's the plan.

Nice. I'm really excited because I was supposed to come see you guys play at The Warfield in 1990 and I got really sick and I had a ticket in my hand and it was like a very exciting moment for me.

Wow, how terrible.

And I didn't get to go and my friend who did go of course went anyway and I got to hear all about it. Green with envy, I was sick then too.

Oh that's too bad, that was fun. I remember playing The Warfield, I mean I don't know if I remember that exact show but we played The Warfield a bunch around that time and it was a really fun gig as I recall and a beautiful theater.

Well, I was kind of curious because I'm kind of like one of your biggest fans.


Everyone here in the office knows because I actually fell over and like rolled around on the floor a little bit when we got Severe Tire Damage a couple of weeks back and I was just wondering, do I get a toaster for nine years of devotion?



We don't have any to give out um, but you know it's some reward.

I know, I'm getting a reward here, I'm getting to talk with you, I'm not one of those people who sits around dreaming up what she'd say to her heros, or whatever, but I've always wanted just to talk with you guys so this is a great kind of honor.

Well, what are you going to say?

Oh I don't know...

The spotlight is on you...

I did want to know have you guys ever had a viola player playing with you because I love playing my viola to They Might Be Giants albums.

Well we had a viola player on our last album

On Factory Showroom?

Yeah, but we had a whole string quartet...

Nice. with us and he was the funny one actually no, the cello player was the real cut-up.

Oh OK, well you know those cellists, they are quite...

He was actually you know what's funny is I know this cello player named Gary Young, he's played on a bunch of our records, and then we also worked with this violinist, Mark Feldman who's kind of a kooky guy as well and I had dinner with him one night when we were, you know, doing some work and because there was no viola player there, the two of them started telling viola jokes...


...which you've probably already heard.

Sure, I've heard plenty of viola jokes.

Yeah, I'd never heard either one of these but they were really into this whole type of humor like one of them was "Why does the viola player leave the case in the back seat of the car?"


Do you know the answer?


It's so that he or she can park in the handicapped.


I can't remember all the jokes actually but they were really into this whole viola thing, I guess the whole idea being that since viola players are in demand they don't have to be as high quality as violinists and cello players.

That's actually why I took up the viola.

(laughs) Is that right?

It really is, I was a crummy second violinist and I started playing viola and everybody wanted me to play with them.

Well that's a good idea, well you should try the accordion, then you'll have even more jobs.

I've always wanted to do--actually I have a friend who's an accordion player and for my seventeenth birthday, she played [Jimi Hendrix] "Wild Thing" for me which was kind of exciting.

That's nice.

She's probably branched out since then, it's been ten years...But let's see, I do have a couple of interview-like questions to ask you, I have always actually wondered this--I'm curious just how have you guys made your living so far, you put out all these albums with all these zillions of songs on them which is just good for me but how do you guys make it? I mean you're not like a top...

Well, we're not rich but we do you know, I mean in the last fifteen years we've been making enough to live on, you know, definitely, we've saved a little money up actually.

Well that's good.

Not a lot, we're really, it's like a funny place to be, it's not like hand-to-mouth, we're not playing in bars but we have a lot of expenses because we're playing you know shows with a road crew, I think the thing is with any band is that you manage to you know expand to you're, whatever your level of income is as a band, you know we find ways to spend the money that we make so but like I said, we live OK, we're not rich but we're comfortable for now and I think in the future you know it could go either way we could find ourselves a little more in need depending what comes along or maybe we'll have a big huge hit.

Well there's always that hope, huh. You've had a few pretty good-sized hits, though.

We've had, they're not really, technically they're not hits because we've never gotten a chart hit in the United States but we've had a lot of songs played on the radio and we've sold a lot of albums. You know the thing is like the Grateful Dead, for example, has never really been played on the radio, that much, and yet they sell a lot of albums and do a lot of ticket sales. Actually probably that's the main thing is that they could or they could at one time play anywhere at any time and make money that way. So there are a lot of different ways to make your money as a musician, I think.

There's other things you could do?

Well, there's other ways besides having hit songs.

Right, I agree with you on that one because some of the greatest bands are like that, not just the Grateful Dead. Let's see, something else I was listening to on the Severe Tire Damage album, I really like the a cappella version of "Meet James Ensor", I can't get it out of my head--it's actually annoying me now because I can't stop singing it, but it came out really well and I was wondering have you guys ever done a whole show a cappella?

Um, no. But that was actually a, we recorded that in a hotel room for a radio show that the guys in Minnesota were putting together and it just happened to come out nice, it just happened to be mixed nicely, you know it's not super reliable, like the thing about playing in the small modest way I think that we've had, I think we feel like we do need to rely on the other musicians to do a convincing show especially like a big, we're really not a [unintelligble] duo, we can't really play totally...

Just the two of you.

Although the first show that we ever did that was exactly what we did, we played as a duo in Central Park, John played guitar and I played the electric organ and we sang and that was pretty much it but I think that we were not, the expectations were not high so we could get away with a bit more than we can now.

Yeah in my head, I just think of the two of you guys playing so when you transformed into the big band kind of format, not as in swing but, well you know what I mean... It was kind of different it was like making a transformation for me, I mean I really liked it but it was such a different sound. I always think of you guys as these two guys cooped up in a garage somewhere with your Casio and your accordion and an answering machine with weird sounds on it.

Well that was actually most of our history you know we still even today we've been a band for only small number of years and we were a duo for like nine years and that was, you know, well I think we thought at the time that that was what we'd always do so when we actually went and got a band it was like very late in life you know--a mid-life career change. So uh, we're still, I mean who knows what will happen? in the future I mean we're still totally into the big band.

It was kind of weird writing out questions to ask you, I felt like I was preparing questions for the dating game or something; what kind of ice cream do you like and what's your favorite color... but I did want to know a couple, I know you guys were inspired by The Residents and actually I was checking out your chat room yesterday which was by and large very bizarre, and I don't know how to even begin explaining it because it was a weird experience all the way around, there was a big Jesus contingency on that didn't make sense.

Now what was it you were, where was it you were.

The chat room--it was "Things Giant" chat room on your web site.

Oh ok, so it was on

Yeah, they were so all over the place--it was kind of a goofy thing--I at one point asked, Hey am I really on the TMBG web site, chat room? And everyone was like, well, sure, and then people would randomly write a line from one of your songs and somebody actually wanted to know if you'd ever collaborated with The Residents.

Well, no but um Flansburgh, my partner had a for something like four years had a kind of CD of the month club where he was putting out kind off, like non standard material by artists, you know a whole broad range of people would basically contribute like what would usually be b-sides or non album material and it would be like 20 minutes per CD and the Residents did one of those. So he got to talk with them a little bit but we still have never met them, there whole bag is this kind of mysterious secret society bit, you know nobody knows who they are.

Yeah. Oh I'm seeing Shonen Knife on Friday. Have you ever seen them perform?

Not seen them, no. I've never seen them live.

I'm looking forward to it, I saw them one time on a second stage at a bigger show but I was just wondering if--I think of you guys when I think of Shonen Knife and then another musician, Daniel Johnston from Texas. Had any rounds with that guy?

He sent us a tape a long time ago of songs and we didn't really I think we didn't really quite know what it was about.

That's the biggest part about it.

So actually he's playing the piano and singing and they were like these deeply sad songs and then later we got to hear some of his other material so we kind of I don't know I think it started to click more what was going on and what was so great about him and actually I really think he's great now, I actually have a record of his that he did with a band which is kind of more recent that I liked as well but there's some particular record with him mostly playing sort of chord organ thing that I really liked.

Oh he's got some wild stuff--I like his lyrics just his images I mean like he says so little and I get the whole experience going.... This is one question I've always wanted to ask, I wanted to know which one of you was a science major.

Um, neither one of us. In fact I never declared a major in college, I only spent one year in college and then I dropped out and joined a band.

Hey you're my hero!

You know I think that it's not for everybody. Somebody asked me if I had a message for the kids today during another interview and it's like the old saw, "Stay in school." I mean , I'm sure that that's what I'll tell my kids -"Don't do what I did" I think that it's there's nothing wrong with it if you can apply yourself to school It just happened that I succeeded doing this thing that was basically irresponsible you know but, and I know that other people have done that too, I think if you're self-directed and you know what you want to do then you can make a decision about it but there's nothing wrong with college, I think its, I feel like I missed out.

Well, you at least tried it out, you didn't go without completely.

That's right, that's true.

I think I've gone off and on for 8 years now and I'm just...

You're sick of the whole thing.

It's just not my thing.

But what is your thing, Stephanie?

What is my thing? you know it changes every year. I was a science major actually and I used to think that one of you guys had to be a science major or at least be really interested in science at some point and that's why I've always wondered that.

Well I think that both John and I like things that are apparently not interesting you know like there's a whole category of stuff that we are sort of forced to learn when we were younger that made them seem automatically boring and now the result is that all the things that seemed boring are like this sort of resource like apparently useless information like historical facts actually have a kind of a new meaning now that we are no longer required to know them I think that's part of the motivation for writing songs about obscure topics because you don't have to know it it's in the realm of the purely, you know it's for amateurs.

It's already out there and its something that we all kind of skipped over because we just had to know it anyway, nobody really knows who the 24th president was but we all had to memorize that at some point.


That's the kind of thing I like too I've been buying encyclopedias lately, I'm on this encyclopedia-dictionary kick.

Really? That's interesting. So what have you come across?

Well, I like finding out simple things like the meaning behind the names of the days of the week--I have this test that I always try out on a dictionary when I'm looking at it. The word "bizarre" is supposed to be Basque but many people think it's French so I look it up to see if it's listed as Basque or not.

And depending on the dictionary they have different countries.

Yeah and I'll look at "jai alai" because for sure that's a Basque phrase so it has to be Basque so then I can determine whether or not the dictionary would even list that.

Oh right, do some of them say "jai alai" is French or something other than Basque?

No, everyone says that that word is Basque but one even went so far as to say [bizarre] is of disputed origin.

Well that sounds like that's the truth of the matter, it's of disputed origin. (laughs)

And I got this phrase book the other day and I was looking for the phrase "Bats in the belfry" because I've never really understood where that one came from and I can never find it and it didn't really say where it came from but they believe it's American and it was first written down in 1907 or something.

It's a good one.

I just like to know that kind of stuff, I'm kind of like the Cliff Clavin of Chico I think (laughing). My editor is laughing at me. You asked what's my thing now, well I write because it's the same thing you were saying about the songs it's like it's fun to write about stuff that everybody knows but they've all forgotten.

According to Meriam-Webster here [bizarre] is French and Italian from the French and Italian "bizarro" but they don't seem to acknowledge any Basque.

That's a black mark against Meriam-Webster--I went into this big study on the Basque culture about two years ago and I learned about their language--you see I really like language and well, I like just about everything and I was finding out the influence the Basque language had English which because it's this weird language in the middle of Europe it's not Indo or European at all, it's unknown, it's thought that it was created there and they themselves believe it to be the language spoken by God which of course has a lot of "X's" and "Z's" so I'm not so sure about that but...


I mean throw a silent "Q" in there and you've got who knows, but it's just fascinating to find out things.

So what's your favorite encyclopedia? Just this morning I was having a conversation about encyclopedias.

Well it's kind of hard, I have this one, it's kind of nerdy but my dad was a French professor and his father was a French professor and he had an encyclopedia from 1867, all in French from France and I like that one because it's interesting. It's a hundred and something years old, it's got a different point of view on everything and it's in a different language so you kind of have to get your own impression of what they're talking about.

Well of course you know that the French kind of redefined encyclopedias.

Yeah, this is supposed to be one of those landmark encyclopedias which I of course can't remember the name of right now.

Well, you said it was from the 1800's right because you know those gods, those pre-revolutionary gods put the encyclopedia together like Denice Diderot because it was a big political gesture at the time because knowledge was not supposed to be for everybody.

Just for the intellectual high society. Well I was just explaining to somebody this morning that the Renaissance was basically kicked off by Gutenberg inventing the moveable type and printing up bibles and of course, of all things you're going to print up you'd print up the bible and we were talking about the value of that. I probably would have chosen something else but...


I probably would have done Mary had a Little Lamb like Thomas Edison or something like that. Actually, now that we've totally strayed which is fine with me, I did want to ask about this because I've been noticing lately, I noticed that you guys have a Planet of the Apes theme towards the end of your latest CD and I watch The Simpsons avidly, I'm a Simpsons nerd, and there are a lot of Planet of the Apes things in there.

There are.

I had to finally go out and watch all the Planet of the Apes movies back to back.

You're probably the only person I've spoken to who actually has seen all of them because we had this long confused debate about what the names of them were. We never quite figured it out, we actually came up with 6 songs even though there are I know only 5 movies and we couldn't figure out which of the song titles was not actually a Planet of the Apes movie and nobody could agree about it everyone kept saying "Oh yeah, that's definitely one and that is also definitely one" and we'd add it up and there'd be 6. So all six of them are on the record. We never figured it out. But so you know the answer. What are the titles of the movies?

I'm going to claim ADD. If you told me the names of your songs, I could probably tell you which one wasn't.

OK, these are the ones we picked. Planet of the Apes, that was the first one. We have "Beneath the Planet of the Apes", which is a disputed one

Wasn't that "Underneath"? Shoot, that was the second one, I think.

Well, then there was "Return to the Planet of the Apes", then we have "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes", another one that was controversial, and "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" which I actually saw, and I know that's a real one, and then uh, one more, Let's see, "Planet", "Beneath", "Return", "Battle", "Conquest", uhh, "Escape From the Planet of the Apes".

Oh yeah, "Escape" is definitely one. I think "Conquest" is the one.

Is the fake one.

Yeah, the fake "Planet of the Apes" title.

The apocryphal "Planet of the Apes".

The apocryphal, yeah that's it. Going back to bibles again. Yeah, so I was just trying to figure out what this is. I am a child of the Seventies but...


I never actually watched any of them, well I think I watched one or two of them probably when I was about ten and kind of went whoa! And actually I always have had this kind of deep impression of the Statue of Liberty at the end, it just really got me, but then I never really saw anything else until maybe the last year, and now I've been seeing a lot of references...

You know I think it must be one of those things where, it's just one of those things in the air culturally and everyone is all of a sudden obsessed on this one topic because I don't know why we decided to do this you know it was just it kind of came out of nowhere, middle of last year, we started playing the songs and we were making them all up on the stage and then we managed to do a whole long list, not only did we do the ones after the movie titles but we had a couple, we did a love theme and a song called "This Apes For You" and it just happened that we could get a recording, either we'd recorded them, or somebody had made a bootleg recording so we collected them all together. But I don't know what the point of all that was.

It's just something to obsess over I suppose.

The funny thing is that last year right as we were recording I was talking to this guy who name is Peter Zarimba in the band called the Fleshtones and he said that when he was a kid he saw this thing in Queens which was a band dressed as the characters in the Planet of the Apes and they actually did a whole show where they were singing, this was in the Seventies, they were doing songs that they'd made up based on the Planet of the Apes, they were like a band called like "The Apes" or something and they were named after the characters, had the outfits and I think that they even had the facial putty or whatever it was. He was telling me this while we were doing this project and he didn't even know that we were doing this but he said that they had an album somewhere out there, it was some kind of independently released album

It's something going around, it must be in the collective consciousness.

That's right.

Oh actually, I did have a question for you from my editor because I told him that you played on Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion's first album. He wanted to know if he was really an asshole or not.

No. (uncomfortable silence)


I mean, I don't know, I just worked with him, I didn't have to live with him or experience some other kind of relationship with him like if you were his record company it would be different but he was really a sweet guy I mean he's somebody that we kind of know he's actually come to our shows which to me is like, we're not a really, I mean for his circle, we're not considered like the coolest band to be seen hanging around with but he and his wife would actually come by and he's very unpretentious good guy but I don't really know the true Jon Spencer.

I've actually put off calling Dial-a-Song because I'm not a big busy signal person but I finally did and I got it on the second try which was kind of cool but that's been going on for like 15 years, hasn't it?

Yes, we started Dial-a-Song in '83, 15 years now and it's really low maintenance I mean for most of its history it was just a phone machine so it's really been a simple thing to run, I mean not that it never broke down or anything; we went through a lot of phone machines you know that just wore out like stacks of them that we kept getting repaired. Now we switched to a sort of a computer voice mail thing which also has its own problems but it's something that any band could have done and we were always surprised that no one else wanted to do something like that. There've been a lot of numbers that you can call and get to hear Marky Mark say what his favorite color is or something, there isn't any other place where you hear the music of the band by calling them up.

I've always wanted to check that out. I think it's a really good idea and is that recording that is on "Misc. T" and I guess it's on your "Then" collection.

The lady.

The lady, is that from [Dial-a-Song], when it was on an answering machine?

Yeah, she I guess called up on a conference line with somebody else and owing to the way that conference lines work, you can't disconnect the third party, they have to hang up so the two of them were on the line with Dial-a-Song and they finished listening to the song they had this 45 minute long conversation it was all recorded, it was this incredibly long thing where they were going into all these details about their personal lives and we just cut out like a minute long section of that and put that on the record.

It's funny, I've tried to figure it out a few times. I didn't even know about Dial-a-Song when I first heard that and I was trying to figure out what was going on there like what was this phone in business. I can almost imagine that woman, she's got such a great voice.

You know I think a lot of people thought we were making fun of her but I really think there's something deeply interesting about this person who is obviously from a kind of working class Brooklyn background who is like obsessed with obscure oddball things that you read about in the back of the Village Voice and she pursues them and is like making a list of them and really kind of obsessing on this stuff and it makes me wonder what is going on there you know it's kind of fascinating and she's obviously incomprehensible to like her friends.

They have no idea. I think it's a great image, the whole little sound bite thing. I guess I should also ask you what you think about that crazy band Mono Puff.

Oh, I think they're great. I'm actually going to see them next week.

That's cool. Do you think they'll ever be making some big tours?

Well, I know, not any big tours but I think that John is going to be going out a couple weeks, he's actually on tour at this very moment. I know he's doing some other shows, but he's playing Central Park. Yeah, I think his band's great and I'm like the person who most likes his songs of anybody in the world so, I'm a big fan.

I hadn't really heard that much about it until a friend of mine's friends came back to town and apparently they're friends with John Flansburgh and so they go to a lot of Mono Puff shows and they were telling me about them and of course, I've never heard of them, you know living in Chico where we don't have a lot of selection, no it was pretty interesting so I went out and I found in one of the 10 record store in town I finally found one copy of It's Fun to Steal and I do, I really like it a lot, it's really kind of fun. I was actually kind of hysterical over the song "It's Fun to Steal".

"It's Fun to Steal" is really a great song, it's actually very, you know the thing about that is that it's a very sincere song, I had a long conversation with John about that song and we were talking about...

The implications?

It's actually a very moralistic song in a way, like it's disguised as a kind of amoral song but it's sort of condemning the person who cheats but in I think an interesting way.

Well that's great, I appreciate you taking the time to call me, I probably could go on for hours and hours...

Yeah I know I'm actually, when you said that you collect encyclopedias I immediately rushed out...

Well we can talk about that some more if you want.

Because I have the old limited edition Britannica that I found at a used bookstore and I gotta say it is my favorite thing, I feel sort of ridiculous about this but I wish that I could replicate in some other way the pleasure I get from this book you know it's so well written, very different from nowadays so I'm actually, I've seen other copies of the same thing and I'm like "Oh I wish I could buy it again, I liked buying it the first time but I've already got one." There's no point.

Yeah, I've been checking out some of those computer CD-ROM encyclopedias and they're alright but they're not too in-depth, they're too Mickey Mouse--I want something that's going to give me the facts, like who uttered this word first.

Yeah, I think it's partly that, just wanting to have some kind of authoritative information but the other thing I like about it, I imagine that this is what's interesting about the one that you're talking about the thing about this whole Britannica is that it's very, written in this very literary way, it's written in a very like subjective, personal kind of way. Whoever's writing about the topic has a personal kind of relationship to the you know Russian history or whatever it is that they're talking about and they're kind of involved in it not just this cold kind of thing. You know I don't think that you can really find reference books like that nowadays, it's sort of gone out of style that kind of writing and it's also very politically incorrect, is the thing about that.

Right, you want to be able to appeal to the masses.

And you don't want to offend people and that's the problem with these books, that they actually are kind of more partisan than they, I think I even have problems with things that they, they say things about ethnic groups that I wouldn't necessarily agree with but it's much more interesting as a result.

It's like getting something by Mark Twain, totally slanted but yet funny and a good human commentary. I was actually traveling in Europe last summer and I just kept looking at the French dictionaries and things like that and I came back here and I've been looking everywhere for just a French dictionary that's got like the entomology of the words in it and it's just so hard to find and I kick myself for not getting one but then I would have had to lug it everywhere and that would have been a pain.

Maybe you could order it?

Yeah, I've been thinking about that. I don't know a good place, I'm not a very big on-line person. It was like jumping on the merry-go-round and going around a few times and saying alright, that was fun, I understood it but I don't want to spend my life here.

Yeah, I think you need to find a place near where you are that's like a, I'm sure in San Francisco or Sacramento there's like a foreign language bookstore and you can probably order it, it's going to cost you a lot of dough but you could probably get it that way.

Well, at least get me what I'm looking for because I really love that, I just love all those old encyclopedias. My latest game has been, we'll be watching TV at night and I'm just thumbing through, every once in a while cackling about something. Actually one of my favorite ones I had to search for in the last year, I was looking for I was reading a poem by Rimbaud and I was reading about this general named Mazagrand who invaded Algeria in the 1800's, no that was actually the city name, they took this fort and it was no problem to take the fort, the general's name was actually LeLievre which is French for "the hare" and it was just this poem about rabbits and just innocent little stuff but they were talking about the Mazigrand smoking in the bars and it turns out they named a drink after that but I haven't been able to figure out what the drink is, but I've gone through like 4 or 5 encyclopedias and dictionaries now, it's just been kind of a fun., I like that kind of thing, that mystery, it's kind of like a little caper to get involved with to figure out where something came from.

I know I know because it never really ends. Did you ever read, The Name of the Rose or any of those books about these sort of literary mysteries?


That's a good one, The Name of the Rose.

I've heard of it but I haven't actually picked it up.

It's about you know books that are information, like that men use to find his way into the story, I don't know, maybe you wouldn't be interested.

I might be, I'm actually a very big reader, I just seem to go back and forth between literature and not. I have a friend who's really into science fiction right now and he's always making me read that, like James Blaylock and stuff like that and it's kind of an interesting departure for me, from what I like to read, but I don't know. I guess I'll just stick with encyclopedias for the moment.

Alright Stephanie, well, it was nice talking to you.

I'm going to be coming to your show [at the Fillmore in SF] on the 10th and I'm really excited about it, maybe I'll worm my way backstage...

Excellent, I'll see you then.

OK, take care....