They Might Be Giants

Seventeen, April 1989

There you are click remote in hand click flipping through the stations click always coming back to click MTV, which lately seems to stand for Mindlessly Tedious Videos. Oh, no, not another Robert Palmer glassy-eyed, glossy-lipped vapid-female video. Just when you're about to change the channel one more time...yo! What is this? Look closer. Two adorable guys romping and stomping their way through a totally rockin' song with lyrics like "I don't want the world/I just want your half." They might look like your nerdy science teacher, but they act like the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night.

In case you've been in a cave for the last year or haven't watched TV, listened to the radio, or opened a magazine, what you're watching is the latest vid from They Might Be Giants, the newest heartthrobs in the music world. The song is their hit single, "Ana Ng," which carries the distinction of having knocked U2's "Desire" out of first place in the college charts. This bittersweet love song is from their second album, Lincoln, which is definitely going for the gold as it makes its way toward half a million records sold.

The reason TMBG is so popular among the intellectual set is because John Flansburgh, 28, and John Linnell, 29, the dynamic duo who make up the band, are kind of like a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Huh? No, seriously, they are the perfect combination of smart and goofy, funny and satirical, creative and very cool. In other words, they are quite possibly the weirdest people on the scene today. But hey, let's be honest: What more could you ask for in a rock band?

They Might Be Giants started out small, of course, when Flansburgh (the one with the glasses) and Linnell (the other one) met in elementary school in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts. "We weren't really good friends until high school," says Flansburgh. "Linnell is a year older than me, and in school that's like being in a different generation."

After graduation, Linnell, the product of a psychiatrist father and an artist mother, studied music for a year, then moved to Rhode Island to play keyboards with a rock band, the Mundanes. Flansburgh, whose father is an architect and whose mother gives walking tours of Boston, tranferred from college to college, doing the university shuffle. During this time he taught himself to play the guitar. "I was working in a parking lot, which is a great place to learn the guitar. I sat in the booth and practiced all day long. And only two cars were stolen while I worked there."

It was in 1981, says Linnell, that "we really cast our lots together" when they each moved into the same Brooklyn apartment building on the same day--one John with his accordion, the other with his guitar. The desire to make music together was strong, but the backup band was nonexistent. Enter a drum machine and a tape recorder. After a few months of practice, they copped the unusual name of an obscure George C. Scott movie, and They Might Be Giants was born.

As for the TMBG sound, their music covers a full range from psycho polka to kooky country to classic pop. Their enigmatic lyrics have the annoying habit of making you try to understand them. For example, how do you interpret, "Wake up and smell the cat food in your bank account/ But don't try to stop the tail that wags the hound"? Or, "He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth/People should get beat up, for stating their beliefs"? Even their titles, like "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head," "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," and "Hope I Get Old Before I Die," are enough to make a normal person squirm.

Well, get ready to do some seriosu squirming, folks, because TMBG has just signed a seven-record deal with Elektra. Will they have trouble coming up with enough songs to fill such a huge order? Not a problem, according to the verbose ones. "It sounds like a lot of work," says Flansburgh, "But with three hundred songs already written..." Right. Not a problem.

But what about that crazy little thing called love? It doesn't sound as if they have a lot of time to devote to girlfriends at this point. "The easiest way to smash up a relationship is by going away on tour for three months," explain the forever-touring Giants. "It's like, 'Hey, I had a really good time on this date. I'll be back next January.' It really doesn't work, but it's not the end of the world, either."

As for the other, more glitzy, options that often accompany fame, like (horrors) TV shows or (even worse) Top 40, these Giants ain't biting. "We are not very good actors," points out Flansburgh. "And we just wouldn't work well in the slick pop scene," continues Linnell. "For now, we just want to keep doing the things we do well."

Whatever they do, we know by now not to expect the expected from They Might Be Giants. "The reason we work well together," says Linnell, "is that we still have a lot of surprises left for each other." Just wait until you hear what they have planned for the rest of us.