Giant Appetites

Louisville Eccentric Observer, March 15, 1995
by Cindy Lamb

Restaurant: Twice/Told Coffee House, 1604 Bardstown Road. Buzz: Cozy, smart, dim lights, big bean rush for conversations, oodles of juices and teas for solace.  One of the first to take the hip torch of the Highlands burning into the 90s.  Live performance space, left-of-center veggie cuisine and a great place to duck in out of the rain for literary treats, warm almond milk and a scone. Guest: John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.

Touring for their fifth album, John Henry, John Flansburgh (Pratt Institute alumnus/guitar monster/glasses) and John Linnell (computer/sax/keyboard savant), known to the world as They Might Be Giants, can work up king-sized appetites.  TMBG have performed in fifteen countries, done 1000 shows, nabbed the MTV Breakthrough Video award for the world-history swinger "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and held the number-one U.K. slot for "Birdhouse In Your Soul".  Once inside their matronly Crown Victoria touring vehicle, I pointed the way to Twice Told in the Highlands and we were off.  By six o'clock, the little brew-and-stew post was hoppin' and who was there to offer us his own table but LEO's own production-wiz, Dan Mehling.  Flansburgh and I jumped into the ordering line and quickly returned.

(noting the numb-y like body language of the wiry Linnell after our busy server brought a single-not double-cappucino)  You're disappointed.

LINNELL: No, you're reading too much into it.  I can order another one. It's just that two shots of espresso at once are better than one at a time.  This is actually really good coffee.

I saw your merchandising booth set up at the Thunderdome--T-shirts, caps,  Is it the Seattle thing that's pressuring you?

FLANSBURGH: (tossing his shoulder-draped coat over the chair) No, we haven't opened any stores yet. We have a friend who roasts coffee in Connecticut, so initially we bought tons of it and it sold very well. We are deeply into's our personal drug of choice.

There aren't many good ones left.

LINNELL: Oh, no, there's plenty--Advil.

FLANSBURGH: And Dimetapp, it's a kicker.  That stuff is great, dries you right up.

LINNELL: I stopped drinking coffee for eight months when we were touring in support of Flood.  I got a few headaches, but mostly friends told me that I seemed less interesting.

FLANSBURGH: We drink coffee before we perform.  It's truly a ritual, so when we were doing an interview with a coffee aficionado magazine in Brooklyn, our publicist suggested we have our own blend of coffee.  It's one of the easiest things to sell.  You buy about twenty pounds of coffee or a tub of beans or whatever, some paper sacks and you're in business.  It's a cottage industry.

Flansburgh excuses himself as nature calls, leaving me to be willingly led into a conversation with Linnell about red-eye syndrome with instamatic cameras.  Cutting to the chase, John believes that the special device used to quell the aforementioned effect only leaves you with pictures of people looking exceptionally irritated.  I'm shaken from the depths of technology by our server, who pipes in "Who's the black bean?"  Linnell raises his hand as if in grammar school. "Black bean over here!"  Flansburgh is stuffed foccacia platter, grilled eggplant, red peppers, provolone and onion-an Italian burrito, if you will; and my Greek salad and iced tea are presented.  Everybody is waiting on our table in a restaurant that's basically a come 'n' get it counter affair.  I hope we do not alienate our fellow patrons, but before I can say, "Oh, give me that bowl," our dinner is served.

FLANSBURGH: Yes, this foccacia is very tasty, very nice.  Good crust. There's this little Bohemian coffeeshop in our neighborhood that serves some of these same dishes, and this foccacia ranks a little better than theirs.

My salad is good. It's cool and crisp and loaded with black olives and feta cheese. Hey, you got soup!

FLANSBURGH: Hmm, I didn't know I was supposed to get soup.  It's kind of like a deli thing, you know, so it looks more like a meal.  And it is.

LINNELL: I notice there's no fancy lettuce.

People are a little iceberg crazy in this part of the country, but at least it's good and green.  You know, something happened to me once in Los Angeles that could never have happened with iceberg lettuce.  I found a frog in my salad.

FLANSBURGH: A frog?  Oh, wow, that's just crazy.

Well, yeah, I was on a deadline so I grabbed some lettuce out of the fridge and opened a new bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch out of the cupboard.  After I sat down to eat, I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye.  I looked down and sure enough, this little green tree frog was crawling right up out of my bowl.  I jumped up and ran around in circles, screaming and spitting...I mean I wasn't sure if I'd snagged a leg or something.  Then, I calmed down and watched him.  He crawled onto the floor, looked up and blinked back all the goo in his eyes, and started to hop across the room.  It was a tile floor and his little body left frog prints of ranch dressing all along the way.

My dinner guests are wide-eyed and attentive, chewing in unison as they listen.  I knew these guys could handle my story, my salad confessional.

FLANSBURGH: That's amazing.  You know, when we were working on Apollo 18...(consults with Linnell) Should we tell her the cereal story? (Linnell, working on his burrito, nods approvingly)  I went to this place and bought some cereal, you know the kind--earthnut, super crunch, one of those honey-drenched, faux natural foods.  I thought we'd try it out, so I went back and had a bowl and thought, mmm, these are pretty good.  The next day we were working and we were about to have some more and we looked in the box and discovered it was half moths.  They were all gray, camouflaged.  They'd invaded our cereal.   LINNELL: We really thought it was good.  Not too sweet.  But we couldn't even go around the room doing the screaming and spitting thing because the bugs had long since metabolized into our system.

Hmmm, Apollo 18. Do you think that the experience manifested itself on the record?

LINNELL: In some ways, yes.

With an I-can-top-that gleam in his eye, Linnell rises to the occasion with a story of an office coffee-maker that he took upon himself to clean last year.  Turns out, it was filled with what he described as "a billion roaches""a remainder of roaches"...or..."like a bullion of roaches"...and one more metaphor..."a roach stock."  I asked if anyone could beat that, and he started out with, "Once there were these two kids..." It's almost as if a song is being conceived before my very ears.

FLANSBURGH: Actually, people have eaten bugs throughout history, but let's move on to the next topic.

Good idea. How's your luck been for rustling up a good meal on the road?

FLANSBURGH: It's difficult to get.  It becomes your main intent, like a survival technique. It's also nice to have Tony Maimone, our bass player, with us on this tour. He's got, well, like a divining rod for good restaurants. If you travel with him, you are assured of a good meal.  It's an intuitive know, just go up this street, hang a left, a little farther up.

LINNELL: It's like another sense.  We've actually had pretty bad luck on our own.

Now, how's that supper? (I really wanted to look over, dab his lip and say, "Are we all finished, hon?"  He seemed so tired.  After effect of seeing those roaches probably.  Ah, genius brings out the mother in me.)

LINNELL: This is what I'd call a successful bean burrito. There was a lot of it.

FLANSBURGH: The ambience is killer.  It's nice to have a place like this to come and eat or read.

You've done quite a few talk shows.

FLANSBURGH: Yeah, quite a few.  We chatted with Jay last time and we've been on Letterman and Conan twice.  On "Good Morning America" we talked a lot with Joan.  I've found from those experiences that you really don't have to say anything.  They're very nice and professional. They're all different--Letterman is totally nerve-wracking.  There's such tension around there.  Everyone's rushing you on and off.  When you're standing backstage, this guy says, "When he announces your name...You must GO-O-O-O!  RUN, GET OUT THERE!"  So your heart's beating and you're panicked.  Conan's much more laid back.  In fact, the "Tonight Show" was totally like hanging out with your parents.

FLANSBURGH: We're looking forward to doing the radio show "What Do You Know?"  Are you familiar with that one?

Sure, out of Madison, Wisconsin.  WFPL has it every Saturday.

FLANSBURGH: Once a year they broadcast from New York City and we're going to be playing.  They're taping April 1st.

I've always wanted to ask about that knock-out version of "Birdhouse" on the "Tonight Show" when Doc Severensen and the band joined in.

FLANSBURGH: It was a real high point in our careers because we were linking up with a real tradition.  The kind of thing where you can definitely tell anyone and they know..."Hey, we played with Doc Severenson!"

LINNELL: (through a tricky Advil smile) Is he a real doctor?

FLANSBURGH: He counted off the song really fast and he didn't have a metronome.  He'd only heard the song about three times, so when it came time to do the show, he ended up counting it out much faster than it was recorded.  Like a speed metal version.

LINNELL: It was hard to keep up with the words.  I mean, they're already running together the way I wrote them but at that tempo I was concentrating on keeping my mouth going.

FLANSBURGH: Then the next song was "Istanbul" and the band actually had the idea behind that one.  Ed Shaunessy, the drummer, was really locked in.  Interestingly enough, on "Birdhouse" the guy who was the arranger kept criticizing his drumming and finally Shaunessy breaks down and says, "But I'm playing the rock beat!"  Hahahaha.

A truly enjoyable meal, something for vegetarians, coffee achievers and frog connoisseurs alike.  A good interviewer, I am able to hide my black olive pits in a secret location on my plate.

If your imagination were a household appliance, which one would it be?

FLANSBURGH: Imagination?  That's very difficult.

LINNELL: I don't know.  I think our imaginations break down more frequently than a household appliance.

Something with a good warranty.

FLANSBURGH: That would be nice.

After our dinner, we boarded the Vic, and I went into some wuss-like babbling about our confusing one-way streets and with that, Flansburgh whipped a big-ass U-turn right in the middle of Bardstown and Bonnycastle that his Brooklyn homeboys would've applauded.  Avoiding jail, we got to the Brewery for the packed show, which included greatest hits, three encores and a conga line.  We'd like to think it was the energy from the coffee.  Much thanks to Jeremy and the Twice/Told crew.