They Might Be Giants Branches Out Into New Ventures

The Oakland Press, October 17, 1994
by Karen Matthews

Try to phone They Might Be Giants' Dial-A-Song line and you'll likely get a busy signal.

Although John Flansburgh and John Linnell may pretend otherwise, after eight years of recording and touring, the Brooklyn-based duo is too popular for only one person to be calling at a time.

"We're a cult band," Flansburgh said in an interview.

They Might Be Giants released John Henry, the group's first album with an actual band instead of a drum machine. It will be their fifth album; there is also a B-side compilation called "Miscellaneous."

Flansburgh and Linnell recently spent several hours in a conference room at Time Warner's Manhattan headquarters giving interviews to promote John Henry.

Flansburgh fumbled with CDs that had been laid out on the table and sounded far too self-deprecating for a rock star.

"We ended up doing this together while sharing equipment in our apartment building in Brooklyn," he said. "John had a synthesizer and I had a tape recorder ... and it seemed like if we just kind of left them all in the same room, we could get more done."

Linnell and Flansburgh actually have collaborated since their high school days in Lincoln, Mass. They are now in their mid-30s but look younger. Flansburgh, who has dark hair and resembles an overgrown teenager, plays the guitar; Linnell, who has light brown hair and plays the accordion and other instruments, could be a vaguely bohemian graduate student.

Part of They Might Be Giants' appeal always has been the fun they poked at rock pretensions, on such songs as "Hope That I Grow Old Before I Die" and "We're The Replacements," and in the brazen way they commanded a stage with just two guys, a backup tape and some loopy props.

But since Linnell and Flansburgh began performing with an expanded lineup in 1992, they have moved toward being a rock band and away from lampooning the idea of being a rock band.

"We're definitely starting to blur the boundary of referring to something and doing it," Linnell said. "We've got, for example, a cover of (the Edgar Winter group's) 'Frankenstein' in our show ... It's really fun to play, but there's also an aspect of it where we're kind of digging on the illness of being that kind of band that ... does drum solos and everything."

They Might Be Giants' touring band of the last two years is, with a few changes, the band that recorded John Henry at Bearsville Studio in upstate New York.

The musicians include bassist Tony Maimone, a former Pere Ubu member who also has worked with Bob Mould; drummer Brian Doherty, who has recorded with the Silos, Freedy Johnston and XTC; and a three-man horn section that boasts equally eclectic credentials.

The album's title refers to the folk figure who died trying to out-hammer a steam drill, the connection being "that we have a live band rather than machines doing the work," Linnell said. "And they all died afterwards," he added, "in the snow."

Since their last album, "Apollo 18," Flansburgh and Linnell have been busy with a variety of projects.

Flansburgh has branched out, starting the Hello CD of the Month Club and directing one of his own band's videos and two for Frank Black, the former Pixies leader.

The first single from John Henry will be "Snail Shell," which in typically quirky TMBG fashion offers thanks "for putting me back in my snail shell."

Another song, "Meet James Ensor," is about a Belgian painter Flansburgh discovered in art history class. "Dig him up and shake his hand," it goes. "Appreciate the man."

Elektra, meanwhile, is hoping that people will discover They Might Be Giants with John Henry and is trumpeting the gold-record status of the 1990's Flood.

Flansburgh and Linnell made light of the achievement.

"Somebody told my dad," Linnell said, "and he was like, 'your record went gold, why didn't you call me?' And I was just trying to imagine myself getting on the phone and calling everyone. Like, 'Mom, Dad?'"

"I know it's hard to believe, but I've turned into Elvis Presley," said Flansburgh, picking up the thread. "I'm wearing a gold suit and standing in front of a gold Cadillac. And I have entirely new friends!"

"So in a way it points up the disjunction between the whole mythology of being a recording act and what it's really like," Linnell summed up. "We live as crappily as we always have."