Since 1982, a few years before they released their 1986 debut, John Flansburgh and John Linnell -- both originally from Lincoln, Massachusetts, both now longtime New Yorkers, both named John -- have been They Might Be Giants, an independent band named after a 1971 George C. Scott movie who are, to echo their own description of their current collaborators The Dust Brothers, pop musicians unto themselves. Their work provides, in the prescient judgment of 'The Spin Alternative Record Guide' (1995) "a fabulous example of just how far the concept of punk can stretch." In subsequent years, They Might Be Giants have elongated things further, although never to the breaking point.
They have released twelve albums, of which The Else, a wildly rocking and sturdy collection of thirteen unfailingly acute songs, is the latest. It features Linnell (who sings and plays keyboards, primarily) and Flansburgh (who sings and plays guitar, primarily) working in tightest accord with their current band of guitarist Dan Solder Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller.
In the creative tradition of their pioneering pop-and-telephone service Dial-A-Song, They Might Be Giants have added projects such as film and TV scoring, contributing original orchestrations and tunes to projects such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and podcast hosting, where They Might Be Giants' monthly presentations often appear in the top-10 of iTunes music podcast charts. They do not burn out, and they do not fade away.
On The Else, They Might Be Giants and the Dust Brothers mesh as though they always were destined to record fascinating songs and cohesive tunes together.
Effortlessly, the music mates the latter's rascally rhythms to the former's inimitably earthbound and elevated singing and songwriting. Some songs, like "Take Out the Trash" are based on simple, timeless rock and roll structures; others, such as "Upside Down Frown," where sweet harmonies float above a restless Dust Brothers drum loop, travel less direct yet equally immediate, routes. "The textured and colorful jacket and pants of the melody and lyrics" in "Withered Hope," They Might Be Giants explain, "have been expertly fitted to the muscular contours of the naked rhythms underneath." Some songs, like "Climbing the Walls," take buoyant melodicism sort of theatrically through the roof. Others, like "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" and "The Cap'm," engage with fields such as, respectively, insectology and headwear design. Of a rocker such as "Shadow Government," They Might Be Giants just say "Finally, a protest song for drug dealers."
Recently, Flansburgh and Linnell sat down and talked about where they've been, where they are, and the making of The Else. Here is what they largely they had to say:
As a band about to release album number twelve, it seems time to ask the question: Do They Might Be Giants enjoy being well understood, or do they suffer from being misunderstood?
LINNELL: Well, we do make music for slightly more complicated reasons than what often gets across -- which is that we're "quirky," that we're doing something willfully oddball.
FLANSBURGH: In fact, we're probably as serious as any songwriters you'll meet.
You mean something more than the odd has kept motivating you?
FLANSBURGH: When people ask, 'How can you be in a band for 25 years?' Actually, it's not that hard if you feel as though you're getting somewhere, creatively. Because of that, the time has flown by. We've had good luck; we've been able to jump from one fun thing to the next. And we've never had to go into rehab, or any of those other Act III 'Behind the Music' outcomes.
Any guiding principles over the years?
LINNELL: The principle was: no principles: We've never thought of ourselves as having specific goals, not sales or financial success, or even critical success. What we've worked out of instead is a general sense of purpose that deliberately has never been nailed down. In other words, we never reached some point where we fulfilled our ultimate dream and could therefore start complaining about how the good times were over.
FLANSBURGH: Right, because the good times had never begun! Back to work, you two!
LINNELL: We never were trying to achieve some particular end; it was always just this on-going thing.
Didn't you have a goal with, say, establishing your Dial-A-Song operation?
FLANSBURGH: People have speculated otherwise, but in fact we didn't start Dial-a-Song to get a record deal. We started it almost fully thinking that we would never get a record deal!
LINNELL: After we got a record deal, we kept doing it.
FLANSBURGH: We thought there was something intrinsically worth doing about Dial-a-Song. We have this podcast now that's been successful for us; every month we do this radio show with all this new, unusual, sometimes rare and live material. What's important about the podcasts -- or Dial-a-Song, or about any activity -- for us is that it's really exciting to have original outlets for your music. Nobody's going to tell you what song is good enough to put on a podcast.
LINNELL: Yet the idea always looms: "Well, I hope this leads to something." That kind of ignores the obvious thing about the original impulse. With Dial-a-Song, it's just really cool to pick up the phone and hear a song. That completely justifies it.
Do you often disagree?
FLANSBURGH: Bands are complicated. But we've been fortunate that we both have slightly unreasonable ideas about what a band can be, and we've been lucky that our ambitions synched up. You know, the ride can change, and people within bands have different ambitions. I'm sure there are many band drummers in the world who are like, 'Just put on the crazy suit.' They're wondering why the lead singer won't do the stuff that's going to be fun.
How were your expectations, as you say, 'unreasonable'?
FLANSBURGH: We believed you could have it all. We grew up with the Beatles and the whole idealized notion of what it means to have a band. It's funny that John and I have been in a duo. You don't need that big a consensus to run a duo.
What idea most united you?
LINNELL: The idea of operating with no obvious purpose. People say, 'So how do you make money off of that?' That idea of 'Why are they doing that again?' And then you start to realize that you kind of like it, that's the only justification. There's no tangible reason to be doing it; it just has this uncanny appeal.
FLANSBURGH: I'm happiest when what we're doing just arrives in people's lives, that 's not attached to, like, a heavy biographical story. I was just reading a letter that we got on My Space from a woman who said she had discovered us while flying on an airline. She was crossing the Atlantic, and they repeated songs on some loop but didn't announce them. It took her a while to find out who we were; she just remembered the songs. I feel like that actually is my favorite way of thinking about where and how we land in the world.
LINNELL: That we're a found object.
Rock and roll ordinarily loves its big dramas and personal stories, doesn't it?
FLANSBURGH: Right --this guy, he's crazy, or he's on drugs -- all the plethora of things that get attached to rock performers or rock performers' personas.
LINNELL: I have to say that in the case of an awful lot of stuff I heard when quite young I had no idea who or what it was -- and that was part of the appeal, the sort of mystery of it.
FLANSBURGH: It's like finding the cassette on the side of the highway.
LINNELL: Yeah, 'This is cool -- I don't have any other information except for the object itself, there's no explanation, it's just apparently cool.' It's interesting to me now that the Internet is starting to display the same arc as the rest of popular culture. There's this opportunity to find artifacts on your own, but more and more you see that there's some engine of promotion behind everything. That's just a fact of life, I suppose, that everything has some economic grounding.
So, mystery is important to you?
FLANSBURGH: We're not trying to be mysterious. All these things, they're kind of like looking behind the curtain. People always want to read the last page of the book.
LINNELL: People want to read the book about the book.
What's the book on the Dust Brothers, now that you've made an album with them?
FLANSBURGH: They're electronic musicians unto themselves. When you work with them, you see how directly involved they are in the creation of their tracks. We really didn't know how they worked, when we started. But we ended up collaborating with them on a lot of different levels: We sometimes gave them beats and they created the songs around the beats. Then there were songs that were almost entire tracks that we manipulated. And then there were tracks that we gave to them to tweak and dust up in the way that they do.
How did you get the album to sound so consistent and of-a-piece? It's remarkable that way.
FLANSBURGH: We upped the ante on ourselves. We said, 'Let's make an album that's solid and strong, and not worry too much about the time and the budget, and just make it.' Most people, when they get around to their twelfth album, there's either nothing going on or they're busy reinventing themselves in some press release-worthy kind of way.
LINNELL: Generally, when you're collaborating, you have to make a lot of stuff up as you go along, but here it was surprisingly easy to integrate their thing with ours.
You did the album with pretty much no moving parts, right?
FLANSBURGH: We did the entire thing with the same producer, the same band. That made it easier to work both with and without the Dust Brothers and not make it seem like a mess. It holds together pretty well.
It's a textbook-solid album, all the way through.
FLANSBURGH: I read a piece in the New York Times recently, about whither the album… We were very album-oriented here. That's an idea that I don't know how much a lot of people are invested in these days. For us, who knows? Maybe we should just move on and make only singles. Just singles!
LINNELL: Or, things that aren't albums -- collections of songs thematically linked together in some other way.
FLANSBURGH: You know, it might be interesting to make only EPs. Just EPs!