Giants Duo Gauges Public Opinion, by the Dial

The New York Times, March 6, 1987
by Jon Pareles

Concerts, radio spots, albums, cassettes, singles, EP's, video clips, flexi-disks: up-and-coming rock bands have tried every format imaginable to get new songs heard. But it took They Might Be Giants, the two-man band that performs tomorrow at the Village Gate, to build a reputation on what may be the ultimate in low-fi, low-budget music distribution: Dial-a-Song (718-387-6962), which dispenses the latest They Might Be Giants songs via answering machine.

"Anybody could do it," said John Flansburgh, the guitarist-singer half of the group. "Record-a-Call machines give you an unlimited outgoing message. But nobody else has taken the They Might Be Giants challenge to start one up."

For the past four years, They Might Be Giants: Mr. Flansburgh, who is 26 years old, and the 27-year-old accordion-banjoist-singer John Linnell: have been writing and recording songs with titles like "Alienation's for the Rich," "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," and "Stand On Your Own Head for a Change." The songs are jumpy, catchy, hyper-verbal and seriously funny; they grab and mix pop genres like lottery winners rampaging through a shopping mall, while the lyrics pile free association on paradox, pausing for outright silliness and offhand deep thoughts. "Every little thing's a domino that falls on different dots," they sing in "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes," "and crashes into everything that tries to make it stop."

'Stories Inside Songness'

"We're wide awake, that's all," Mr. Flansburgh said. "Most people just don't bring everything they've got to what they do. We don't feel we have to strip things away and make the songs more simple for people to understand what we're about. It's not an overload, it's a cornucopia, a myriad.: O.K., a potpourri. I think we just can't get enough."

"There are stories sort of nested inside a whirling blur of songness," Mr. Linnell said. "We have our own interpretation of each song, but when somebody else decides they like one and comes up with their own bizarre interpretation, that's fine."

When the two Giants teamed up, after working together in a Rhode Island band called the Mundanes, their first plan was to find a bassist and drummer like any other rock band. But after a year and a number of incompatible backup musicians, they decided a duo was big enough, and they began performing with homemade backup tapes at the clubs and galleries and performance spaces of the Lower East Side. "This afforded us the opportunity to be a group for four years while making no money," Mr. Flansburgh said.

Dial-a-Song was devised when a bicycle accident sidelined Mr. Linnell from stage shows for a few months. The group now attracts a nationwide audience, long-distance. "People can tell us immediately after hearing it what they thought of the song," Mr. Flansburgh said.

"When they start hanging up in the middle," Mr. Linnell added, "you know the song's not working."

'Heard It on the Message!'

Late last year, They Might Be Giants got around to releasing their debut album, "They Might Be Giants" (Bar None Records, Box 1704, Main Post Office, Hoboken, N.J., 07030). But the 19 songs on the album are only a small sampling of their repertory, as Dial-a-Song keeps the band's audiences up-to-date. Last Friday at Darinka, the basement apartment-turned-private club on the Lower East Side, Mr. Flansburgh introduced a "relatively new" song and a listener interrupted him: "I heard it on the message!"

The Village Gate will be the biggest basement They Might Be Giants have played as headliners so far. The group plans to use what Mr. Flansburgh called "hilarious props and stuff." "People have tried to ignore us for as long as they could," said the band's producer-tape operator-sound engineer, Bill Krauss. "But we just won't go away."

They Might Be Giants will play two sets tomorrow at 9 P.M. and midnight at the Village Gate, Bleecker and Thompson Streets (475-5120). Admission is $7.50.