Beat the Machine

The Music Paper, November 1994
by Jim Santo

I first interviewed John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants way back in 1988 for the cover of The Musicians' Exchange. Back then, the two Johns were riding high on the unexpected success of their eponymous debut LP and its oddball hits "Don't Let's Start" and "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head."

At the time, they had just released their second album (Lincoln) and were tentatively receiving major label offers. They were still very much a local act, rehearsing in their Brooklyn kitchens, recording in a tiny 8-track studio, releasing their albums on the Hoboken-based indie Bar None Records and performing in seedy rock clubs.

They Might Be Giants has come a long, long way in the six years since then. Sitting across the table in the Rockefeller Center headquarters of Elektra Records are two men who have recorded more than 100 songs, performed more than 1000 shows around the world, made 10 videos and appeared three times on David Letterman's TV show.

What's more, after a career of recording and performing as a duo, accompanied by a drum machine and ingeniously programmed tapes, They Might Be Giants is now a real band.

"We were in the middle of the tour for Apollo 18 [in 1992] and we were doing these new songs, but it wasn't quite as interesting as we wanted it to be, so we thought we'd add a musician," recalls Linnell. "And then we thought, 'Well, we'll get rid of the tape and hire a rhythm section' and before we knew it, we had a full five-piece band. It just sort of happened, in a way. Which is the way we often conduct ourselves. We don't really plot out our goals. We just end up doing stuff."

Drummer Brian Doherty (Silos, Freedy Johnston), bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu, Bob Mould), sax player Kurt Hoffman (Ordinaires, Band of Weeds) and trumpeter Steven Bernstein (Spanish Fly) took the duo's intricate, eclectic pop tunes and fueled them with sweat, muscle and a degree of musical dialogue only a live band can achieve.

"It's really amazing to hear a drummer playing the songs that we wrote for the drum-machine 'cause some of the things really come alive that have always been fairly rat-tat-tat," said Linnell.

"It can sound really full-blown and super-majestic," added Flansburgh. "Part of the problem with the live show [when we were a duo] was that we really couldn't reproduce certain things in the show that we could do on record. Now that we have a six-piece band, there are songs in our past repertoire that we can do and actually reproduce."

John Henry, their third Elektra LP (and 14th release overall, counting singles and EP's), captures that live energy for the first time. Working with producer Paul Fox (10,000 Maniacs, XTC) proved a rite of passage for the pair.

"It really worked to our advantage in ways we weren't even expecting," said Linnell. "Paul really was insistent about making it sound as live as possible. We would have been content to record the drums and bass and then overdub other stuff and do countless punch-ins to fix everything up. Paul was opposed to that. He wanted to get a full take of the rhythm section and John and I, and in some cases, including horns..."

"And in some cases including mistakes!" Flansburgh interjected. "Which drives us insane!"

Yet for all their success, Flansburgh and Linnell are still the same witty, lovable nerds they've always been. They still live in Brooklyn, still rehearse in the kitchen and still offer their unique "Dial-a-Song" service-although obsolescence has prodded them into the computer age.

"Dial-a-Song was just killing answering machines," said Flansburgh. "We had seven or eight and we were constantly having them repaired. Then they stopped making parts for the kind that had the unlimited outgoing message. Then the place that made them went out of business. We ended up jumping over to the computer format. We use a voicemail system and that works OK, but it's not as high fidelity, which is really frustrating."

Fretting about the fidelity of a free-music service they started back when they were nobodies is typical of two guys who harbor no illusions about their place in the world of pop music.

"We're just a fringe band," said Flansburgh. "It's hard to imagine, but I think we could have some fluky large success."

"We're definitely the Sideshow Bob of the rock circus," says Linnell.