Band Dials Back to 1980s Success

They Might Be Giants's Dial-A-Song Returns to Service

The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2015
by Tad Hendrickson

As the music industry continues to search for the next big thing, the Brooklyn-based band They Might Be Giants are reverting to the ’80s.

1983, to be exact, when John Flansburgh and John Linnell began recording songs for the band’s telephone answering machine. As of Monday, Dial-A-Song is back—with a new phone number, (844) 387-6962—promising a new song each week throughout 2015.

Back in the day, the band’s cultlike fans or Village Voice readers who saw the duo’s ad in the Voice Bulletins personal section could call Dial-A-Song and hear a tune, a collection of which were rotated regularly from a suitcase full of cassettes next to Mr. Flansburgh’s answering machine in his kitchen.

“There were 30 or 40 in rotation,” he recalled, estimating that TMBG recorded a few hundred songs this way. “Because it changed every day, people assumed that we were writing the songs every day, which we weren’t. But we didn’t take a lot of time to dissuade people from thinking that. It made us look cooler than we were.”

The novelty of Dial-A-Song (slogans included: “Free when you call from work”) and the music itself led to an indie-label deal, then a major-label deal, 16 studio albums (including two platinum), MTV hits like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in the early ’90s, soundtrack work for movies and theme songs for TV shows like “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Daily Show.”

Although it has sold four million albums, the band maintained the phone line until 2006, but the machines kept breaking and new technology offered other options.

“When we first did it, there were tremendous shortcomings to the phone machine in terms of fidelity,” said Mr. Flansburgh, 55 years old. “Actually, if we had any sustained notes in the song, the machine would reject it, mistaking it for the beep at the end of the message. So there were all these odd choices that were nonmusical.”

Now, there are other options, including or the band’s YouTube channel. Subscribers can receive album-quality downloads in their email inbox each Monday (a modest $30 for the whole year), or they can purchase them individually online Tuesday.

The band also set up a Dial-A-Song Network made up of 100 radio stations, which will broadcast the songs at a particular time each week. Mike Pesca’s podcast “The Gist” will debut the songs Monday nights on

There will be plenty of opportunities to see the band (which has performed as a five piece since 1992 with an occasional horn section added) in person in 2015, starting with a residency at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on the last Sunday of each month (the Jan. 24 was an instant sellout). Different shows will include performances of entire albums, as well as Dial-A-Song material. The band will also be touring throughout the U.S. this spring.

They Might Be Giants “is a band full of surprises,” says Wenzl McGowen of Moon Hooch, which has often opened for the band. “This, in my opinion, is the main reason that crowds of people show up at every club they play.”

Part of that surprise is the myriad styles that the band incorporates. Another is the quirky subject matter—ranging from the chemical makeup of the sun to 11th U.S. President James K. Polk to a female hotel detective—sung by either member.

“We were not exemplary students,” Mr. Linnell, 54, said. “But we were excited by smart ideas. I think one way to put it was: We aspired to not be stupid.”

This approach made the band ideal for children’s music, and it has released several albums aimed at a younger set, like Here Come the ABCs,Here Come the 123s” and “Here Comes Science”—all certified gold.

“We made our first kids’ record on a lark. It wasn’t our idea, but we figured it would be pure fun,” Mr. Linnell said. “If we were calculating, we couldn’t have come up with a better way to reinfuse our fan base. There’s now young people who liked our kids music when they were 8 that are now coming to see us when they are out of the house.”