It's Not the Bunk, It's the Coffee

Musician, March 1987
by Peter Waltrous

"People were horrified the first time we lit our skin on fire during a performance. Now that they've come to expect it, what's the point? The sad part is, we really enjoyed doing it." So mumbles accordionist John Linnell, one half of They Might Be Giants, a duo-cum-beatbox rock attraction that's New York's own version of Timbuk 3. Dressed in green-gold caftans and fezzes, Linnell and guitarist John Flansburgh are drinking huge mugs of coffee and anxiously awaiting to rock the world with They Might Be Giants' "Bring Me the Head of Kenny Rogers" Tour '87. Still, they're feeling reflective.

"Our parents blame the coffee," Flansburgh screams, pounding his desk, referring to the group's prolixity. They've written too many songs: 300 and climbing in the past three years, tossing them off like used Kleenex. "Well, some of them are really bad," he admits with a rasp. "We have to write a lot because of Dial-a-Song. It's our little way of touching the world, or having the world touch us." Their Dial-A-Song service (718-387-6962) rotates a different song daily. It's their answer to the homogeneity dumped on us by major labels, and a lot cheaper than buying a record. "Some cranks call up and grumble, 'Don't quit your day job' or 'Sell your synthesizer,'" Flansburgh wheezes. "But we've already been fired, and the synthesizer's busted. Hah! We showed them."

Like their new self-titled record, They Might Be Giants' live shows have an overlay of humor masking deep thinking. The music is slippery; a tune like "Alienation's For The Rich," a funny poke at angst-heavy writing, also works on a serious level, making for some uncomfortable ambiguities of intent.

"People think we're a lot funnier than we really are," Linnell says, "and that often obscures the real meaning behind our songs." "Yeah, I'll admit we're funny," Flansburgh interjects, "but there's also a big element of humor."