Sinking Person's Pop

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS are two Americans called John who are probably going to kill the next person daring to call them 'quirky' , and who can blame them? ANDRE COLLINS wades through pudding lists, Hugh Cornwell's fart jokes and milk masquerading as cottage cheese.

NME, March 11, 1989
by Andre Collins

It seemed like a reasonable idea to eat here. They Might Be Giants are John Flansburgh (glasses) and John Linnell (not), an independent success story, One Little Indian's first American signing, MTV regulars, makers of deceptively playful handmade videos and three- minute pop songs.

They Might Be Giants are here, and they're now. The idea was to eat in this ock-American restaurant-deli-diner in Soho, and John F's saying "Oh God!" A cultural faux pas already? Culinary patronisation? All possible in England, but no, it's just that his milk's off dispersing into cottage cheese in his 'American' coffee.

"It's like an astrology class," he exclaims, The authentic American waitress takes it away. Are you ordinary guys, John and John?

"Why do you ask?" enquires John F, not playing the game.

I mean, is there a little madness in all of us?

"Well basically, being from New York we don't really trust people who claim to be utterly mentally healthy. People in New York are very proud of their neuroses. Given that, we're basically ordinary people - we don't do drugs and aside from the band, we lead pretty sedate lifesyles."

What does 'indie' mean in America?

"There's no political value in being 'indie' in the United States. If anything, they'll just think you're pathetic, like 'So you're not very good? Why can't you be on a major label? Aren't you good enough?"

The Giants are certainly good enough to have produced one of the most intensely diverting albums of the season so far, on a moments-per-minute scale. Lincoln it's called, containing no less than 18 songs, which range musically from the Strangleresque "Santa's Beard" to the Monochrome Setty "They'll Need A Crane", all of which tower lyrically above anyone you'd dare to compare them to.

Lincoln takes the biscuit. It's no barrel of laffs, but the smiles are there if you're not too cool to look out for them. The Johns played a one-off gig at the Fulham Greyhound last night, just the two of them, and if shambolic was ever a compliment ... Their performance, their technique, personfies the perfect imperfection.

"There are people who think 'They could be pretty slick if they wanted to!' but I don't think that's really true. We're permanently lumpy."

Like the milk. Is the replacement okay, asks our waitress?

'It's just like American coffee!" states John F, cheekily. Do you feel purged onstage?

"I really like working in the studio because it's so easy to control everything. It's so obvious when we play live that we don't have any control over anything! You might be purged!"

John F has ordered 'a Jewish classic', potato blintzes.

"Oh man, if this is New York style, these blintzes are, like, half size!"

"Dwarf blintzes!" adds John L.

I remember the year I went to camp/I heard about some lady named Selma and some blacks/Somebody put their fingers in the president's ears/It wasn't too much later they came out with Johnson's Wax, Purple Toupee.

These songs are neither terrace anthems nor masturbato-suicide notes. Even when a Giants song sounds like it's cruising, lyrically, they'll stick a beguiling one-liner into your spokes when you're not ready. Deliberate, I assume.

"A lot of times when you get to the third verse you're kinda waiting for that little twist - but want something that actually wakes you up again. I know exactly what you mean, you can probably point to it in every single song. It's got a point where the little hand comes out of the record and slaps you in the face. I'm sure that can be really annoying.

"It's because we like to slap ourselves on tha face!"

"Literally!" adds John L. Do you fight?

"No. We never actually hit each other," he assures me.

"It would be really weird if we did."

"It seems to me my favourite bands are people who, when they're working as a creative group, come from a similar background, like The Ramones, who obviously all dig the same kind of music - and it really shows because they really unified."

Same haircuts too.

"We don't have that," John L reminds me, half of his face obscured by a wavy fringe. The more conservatively shorn John F contemplates their own differences:

"Because there are only two of us we tend to get polarised a lot. You know, if one guy's the skinny guy, the other one's got to be the fat guy! There are people in the world who are a lot more shy than Linnell!"

"And there are bigger loudmouths than him!"

"Nobody talks about The Proclaimers that way. Which one is the fat one anyway?"

"It's weird that they both wear glasses."

"They're totally twinning it up!"

Back to the songs. Will you ever write a nine-minute epic?

"We will," states John F, defiantly. "There are 19 songs on the first album, and 18 on our second. We're counting down! So the next album should have 17 songs on it. We'll get all the way down to just one."

"It'll be a CD length song: 80 minutes!"

"It would be the easiest thing in the world to tack a guitar solo onto any of our songs. Being able to do a three-minute song instead of a two-minute song is no proof of great ideas. I'd like to hear a Genesis record with a single idea on it! We're trying to bring people a magic thrill a minute. It's not like we're indulging."

Speaking of which, here's our waitress, asking if we wish to look at the Pudding List. Ten points off.

"The Pudding List?" declares John F.

"Suddenly we were sent shrieking back to England!" proclaims John L.

"Right! Nobody eats puddings."

"A pudding is a toothless trailer-home thing to eat."

"You never get pudding at a diner!"

So as if to recreate the Hollywood atmosphere that the Pud List has just shattered, we order apple pie. Cute, eh? With cinammon ice cream that turns out to be neither trad Americana nor Olde English fayre when we come to discuss it later on. The accidental tourists strike out!

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

"I remember the following day, it was the first time I experienced changing channels on TV and seeing the exact same image on every single channel. To me that was the really profound thing - TV had been affected in this really special way," says John L. John F. "I was in a barber's shop having a really horrible crew cut. I know the barber cried."

Is audience reaction over here very different to playing at home?

"Yeah. British audiences seem to be divided. One is incredibly cold, non-responsive: then after the show they go 'You were f--ing brilliant!' and you're, like, 'Why didn't you ever applaud?' - 'well, that'd be kind of in poor taste wouldn't it? How crass!' And then you get these complete over-the-top headbanging types," explains John F.

What's the stupidest heckle you've had?

"I was testing the mike on the saxophone and somebody said 'who farted?' " recalls John L, affecting an English accent. "I was telling Flansburgh about seeing The Stranglers in Boston, and he (Hugh Cornwell) was making fart jokes, because we were in Boston, the town of the bean -that was the basis for the joke! And then a year later, the same club, the same band, he said the exact same joke! 'There's going to be a lot of farting tonight!' They were a great band."

A lot of The Giants' songs conjure up a distinct fairground feel and a sense of fatal attraction. Do you like fairs?

"We like parades," offers John L. "Things that are supposed to be pleasant often seem to me to be the most horrifying things. Parades and things like that are truly menacing.

"In a lot of ways our music has the same impulses as this sort of dirge music that comes out of England by people who think themselves incredibly serious, trying to present this nightmare imagery. We're probably just as hung up on nightmares."

So do you get sick of hearing the word quirky?

"Totally! I want to kill everybody half the time," says John F. "Somebody wrote this review of a show we did that I thought was really aggressive: the reviewer critiqued the show that we were a 'feel good' band! I really wondered what show he was at!

"You know, it's like 'Here's a song called 'Racist Friend': 'Hey! That's a feel good song right there!'"

On stage at the Fulham Greyhound, John F said: "This is a song about falling in love, falling out of love, finding the one you love and killing them." I think that neatly sums up The Giants' clown-under-the-bed darker side.

"That's 'I'll Sink Manhattan' which is a song about a guy who somehow figures out how to sink the island of Manhattan just to kill his ex-Iover, so it's his apology to the other people he's gonna kill in between. He's just gotta do it!" elaborates John L.

"We're a feel bad band!" adds his partner, relishing the thought, and probably thinking about the check while I think about the bill.

In a crude moment, I ask John and John to list the instruments they play. They oblige.

"We both play auto harp. I played the melodica, guitar, did some programming..." lists John F.

"You did a trumpet!" adds John L, then takes over:

"I played the baritone and tenor saxophone...

"Linnell's the real poly-instrumentalist. I refer to him as the genius."

"Thank you, John."

"That's a real rock band, refer-to-the-keyboardist thing to do--y'know-- 'The guy's a genius! He can, like, read music!"

"The real killer word is wizard; keyboard wizard. So anyway, I play clarinet, a banjo, all manner of keyboards, the bass programming, the xylophone."

If this all sounds a little precious, you should see John F rock out with his axe! He has the blisters to show for it.

"Rock's great. It bothers me when people think we're making fun of that."

So, before the Johns take giant steps back across the ocean to their native Brooklyn to rattle off their promised 17-song third album of paranoid pop vignettes, I shall ask them if indeed there is one word to describe them.

"You may have to stick with good."

They might be right.