Giant Steps

New They Might Be Giants documentary reveals secrets of duo's enduring popularity

Brooklyn Paper, May 26, 2003
by Lisa J. Curtis

The two Johns of They Might Be Giants - John Linnell and John Flansburgh - were hesitant when producer A.J. Schnack pitched the idea of making a documentary about their Williamsburg-based rock group’s 20-year career.

But Los Angeles-based producer-turned-director Schnack can be persuasive - the documentary, Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, is set to open in theaters on Friday, May 23.

"I’ve known John Flansburgh for a number of years," Schnack told GO Brooklyn last week. "So I took him out to dinner and plied him with drinks."

Sitting down for an interview at P.J. Clarke’s in Manhattan, Flansburgh and Linnell recalled their apprehension.

"We were scared until we saw it," Flansburgh told GO Brooklyn. "We had very mixed feelings. We were a little scared at the beginning, but we knew A.J., and we figured he would do something interesting with it."

Schnack, 34, and Flansburgh, 43, had already collaborated on several music videos - Schnack produced and Flansburgh directed - such as the one for Ben Folds Five’s "Song for the Dumped."

"It turned out great," said Linnell. "But it was a total potential loose canon. It could have been the kind of thing where we would specifically be saying in interviews, ’We’re not talking about the documentary. We’ll answer any other questions.’"

Flansburgh confessed his initial fear that the documentary would focus on the business side of things or draw too much attention to the individuals behind TMBG rather than the "project" itself.

"We don’t even put our pictures on our album covers," stressed Flansburgh. "For us, we’ve never wanted to emphasize the personal part of it. It’s not about our personas per se. We want people to be free to think about how unusual that song is, not go, ’That guy must be weird.’"

Flansburgh feared the documentary would feed the comparisons that are a natural result of being a duo, and he could be perceived as the less "artistic" half.

"I do a lot of the business for the band, sort of the bad cop of They Might Be Giants," said Flansburgh. "I felt personally vulnerable. In real life, those can be the best guys in an organization. I’m a responsible person. But if you’re caught up in the romance of rock and roll music, being a responsible person is like a door prize.

"I’m a pretty spaced out guy but I also have the ability to return a phone call and say ’no’ in a thoughtful way It would be easy for me to come off as the uptight guy," said Flansburgh.

"But in fact John [Linnell] writes some pop-y songs, and I write some pop-y songs; he writes crazy songs and I write some crazy songs. But the reason we’ve stuck together is because we have a lot more in common."

There are obvious differences between the two Johns’ approaches to life however: Williamsburg resident Flansburgh was fairly prompt for our meeting, while Park Sloper Linnell was half an hour late for the 45-minute appointment; Flansburgh ordered champagne - flashing his reminder, the name and address of the restaurant written in ink on his hand, while Linnell asks for coffee and is soon muttering for a refill.

"What I like most about the film," said Flansburgh, "is that it showed our friendship. Which isn’t something I was thinking about when we were making it, and it’s a special thing."

Schnack’s camera followed the band around for seven months. Blending animation, live performance footage from a gig at Greenpoint’s Polish National Home and interspersed readings of TMBG’s often humorously bleak lyrics by comic actors Michael McKean, Janeane Garofalo and Andy Richter, Schnack has created a lighthearted, novel take on the documentary genre, which is as interesting to watch for a TMBG fan as for a Giants ignoramus.

The approach echoes TMBG’s style.

"Because we have a sense of humor about what we do - albeit pretty deadpan relatively speaking - it took a very long time for critics to realize we were doing anything that was subtle or of quality," said Flansburgh. "Humor in rock music is essentially a bad idea. It’s like humor in soap operas.

"We had to find a delicate balance that’s about our personal sensibility, and it happens to work for us," he said. "Essentially, humor in rock music is not a good idea. We’re not a good influence. But as we have existed longer and longer, critics especially, have to come to realize there’s something enduring about what we do. A lot of bands have a ’to be removed by ’ stamp on the front of them and certainly that was expected of us."

The documentary traces the duo from their Lincoln, Mass. junior high school to Williamsburg, to their early days as performance artists in the East Village in the 1980s, to record deals and deals gone bad, MTV videos and tours. There is also an unexpected, charming snippet of Linnell in a park with his son Henry, now 4.

Schnack believes he came to this project at exactly the right moment. In 2002, TMBG’s image transitioned from cult rock status to "urban legends," as writer Michael Azerrad called them in the New Yorker. Last year, the duo won a Grammy Award for "Boss of Me," the theme song for Fox TV’s Malcolm in the Middle; Rounder Records’ released TMBG’s No! a record for children; and Rhino Records released a retrospective box set, "Dial-A-Song."

"It’s a lot like your tombstone being carved," said Flansburgh. "This is what you did. We’ve always tried to keep it a future-oriented project."

Schnack credits TMBG’s resurgence in popularity with the fact that their early fans are now in positions where they can hire the band for their own projects. TMBG wrote the "Doctor Evil" theme for "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" (1999) and contributed a full album of new material that was packaged with an issue of the literary journal "McSweeneys" in 2001.

"They’re never going to quit," said Schnack. "They are always going to be a force for some level of the population. The fact that people like [’McSweeney’s’] Dave Eggers and producers at ’Malcolm in the Middle’ and producers at the ’Daily Show’ want to work with them says a lot - and that’s the first generation of those young kids to grow up and want to do something with them.

"Now they’re doing kids records. Now 3-year-olds know They Might Be Giants. They’re set for another 30 years!" (The prolific output continues: The Johns hope their new children’s book and CD "Bed, Bed, Bed" will hit stores this fall.)

In Gigantic, it becomes clear that part of their longevity in the biz is due to their pioneering embrace of technology to keep in touch with their fans. Schnack credits them with being among the first to use technology, from answering machines to music videos to the Internet, enabling the band to work outside of the traditional record label marketing formula.

Flansburgh’s proud of their special brand of success.

"It’s a good story to tell for people who think of our culture as becoming overwhelmingly corporate," he said. "I don’t watch ’American Idol’ but I can tell that there’s an aspect to our culture that’s moving away from people doing things because they’re into it and they love it and people looking to be made - someone else has to come along and make them a star and make them into an artist.

"That’s your own decision to make," Flansburgh said. "If you want to make music, you can make music. The people who make careers in music, have that in themselves. If you need a company to back you up in order to feel like it’s worth going on, you have the wrong attitude for survival."

In Gigantic, TMBG fans will be tickled seeing Flansburgh recording a song directly into the Dial-A-Song Record-A-Call in his office. (The phone number, which they advertised in the Village Voice classifieds in the early days, became legendary.)

Schnack said he was initially surprised to learn that They Might Be Giants came out of the 1980s East Village scene.

"It makes perfect sense, of course, that they’re performance artists," said Schnack. "They came from a world where the rules were thrown out - it seems totally obvious in retrospect. One of the reasons they have been around for so long is that their own personal vision and idea was the most important thing to them."

In Gigantic, it appears the TMBG fan base isn’t full of 40-somethings who have been trailing the band for 20 years, but that they constantly attract young fans.

"What’s great about kids in high school and college - what attracts them to They Might Be Giants - is that it’s their discovery period for music," said Schnack. "Kids, when they have a serious time in life, are looking for artists that they really respect so they are drawn to this band that’s filled with stuff that’s not in the traditional pop music landscape."

"We’ve had a very stumbling, mumbling, bumbling career," said Flansburgh. "We do unusual kinds of music and we’ve had some success and some things that weren’t so successful. We’re an original band and original bands don’t always fare so well.

"If you’re doing something in a more artistic, abstract way, you’ll probably have some success but not consistently," he said, adding, "We don’t mind the roller coaster ride."