A 'Giant' Show in Prospect Park This Saturday

The Brooklyn Paper, July 8, 2009
by Gersh Kuntzman

If you're between 35 and 50, They Might Be Giants was the soundtrack of your development from gawky teenager to slightly less gawky adult to once-again-gawky parent.

In your 20s, you shouted the words to the band's first hit single, "Don't Let's Start" as if yelling them to an ex who just dumped you.

A few years later, you got into a more complicated relationship with someone like the girl from "Twisting," who "blew out your pilot light and made a wish," yet still had you coming back for more abuse.

And then you hit your 40s, and you played "Where Do They Make Balloons?" or "James K. Polk" for your kid. And you thought it was cool.

And your kid thought it was cool, too.

And when you had your second kid, you bought Here Come the ABCs and "Here Come the 123s" (which won a Grammy this year) and discovered that teaching toddlers how to read and count could be fun.

That this band could be so eccentric — and so normal — for more than 25 years has been a great comfort to its fans. And it is for the Giants themselves, Williamsburger John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who now lives in Windsor Terrace — mere blocks from where the band will put on a family show as part of Celebrate Brooklyn on Saturday.

"Through it all, our intention has never been to figure out how to create cross-platform music that's going to make us a million dollars," said Flansburgh over a bagel and lox spread at Terrace Bagels near Linnell's pad. "Whether we write for kids or for adults, where it lands is pretty self-evident to us."

Though they're bona-fide rock stars (they've been on Conan more than any other band), they're also nice guys who do nothing to cultivate the rock persona, Flansburgh added. Why bother when you're making music that you want to make, fans or no fans?

"We come at kids music from a Dr. Seuss point of view," said Flansburgh, the id to Linnell's superego. "Dr. Seuss said publicly that he was writing for himself and not tailoring it to children.

"Of course he knew that his books were going to the children's section, but his output was really his personal expression. That's the example we follow. Some people want to be educators or just be nice. We are nice and we are inadvertently educators, but it's not our mission to be either."

Linnell, also manhandling a bagel with spread, jumped in: "Our particular method comes from the work we've always done, which wasn't only for adults, but for us. I know that we've never been able to come up with another way of working. It would weaken what we do if we were trying to figure out what other people want."

If the band's longevity, its popularity with music nerds, and its 2009 Grammy for best kids album is any indication, people want what They Might Be Giants does.

Currently, that means music that revives and reinvents the old "Schoolhouse Rock"-style of educatainment. But the great thing about TMBG's kid's music is that it doesn't dumb it down for the sensitive young minds. The new album, Here Comes Science, opens with "Science is Real," a song that reminds children of all ages that Creationism and unicorns are nice stories, but "the facts are with science."

And you can dance to it.

Another song, "I am a Paleontologist," could make your kids give up that foolish dream of playing first base for the Yankees, while the circulatory system gets a Fountains of Wayne-style tribute in "The Bloodmobile."

And everyone can use the refresher course offered by "Why Does the Sun Shine," an old They Might Be Giants chestnut that explains, "The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees."

The reprise of the band's decades-old live ode to stellar fusion reminds us not only of the sun's importance, but how They Might Be Giants' supposed departure into kid rock is no departure at all. Some of the duo's earliest recordings include songs about a blue canary nightlight, an examination of why Istanbul changed its name from Constantinople, and a fairly detailed look at what makes mammals mammals.

"We've done 'Why Does the Sun Shine' for adults for years as a piece of camp," Flansburgh said. "So it's nice to see that it works for children, as well."

In subject matter, if not style, They Might Be Giants occupy the opposite end of the kid music field from Dan Zanes, who found his greatest success after giving up his dream of being a Major Rock Star about a decade ago and took his current job as a missionary to parents struggling to find kids music that didn't make them go mad.

But where Zanes's records have a calculated, "This is good music that you need to know" feel to them, They Might Be Giants retains the essential freewheeling spirit that got them into the business in the first place.

"Dan Zanes is an artist," Flansburgh said. "I have nothing but respect for him."

You could tell a "but" was coming.

"But part of his success, or his publicists' success, is that he's recast kids music. He's re-introduced the idea of family music, and it makes sense."

Or as Linnell put it, "There has long been this idea that kids music needed rounded corners so the young ones wouldn't get hurt, but kids actually have the same extreme passion for music that adults have. They want an intense musical experience."

And they'll get it on Saturday, Flansburgh promised.

"I'm the one without kids, but I'm happy where the family show is now," he said. "We actually can do a bullet-proof show. I don't know where those kids got those bullets."