This is an exciting time for fans of They Might Be Giants, the famous alt-rock duo comprised of John Linnell and John Flansburgh. The Johns have restarted their beloved Dial-a-Song enterprise after a 15-year break from it. Yes, after making two platinum albums and theme songs for The Daily Show and Malcolm in the Middle, and winning a couple Grammys, TMBG has reverted to its beguiling game of telephone. Every week of the year, fans can access a new tune simply by dialing the toll-free number (844) 387-6962 (or, you know, visiting the band's site). This wonderfully wacky tradition still sports great songs. Except, unlike when Dial-a-Song debuted in 1983, via the answering machine in Flansburgh's Brooklyn kitchen, the tunes now sound a lot better thanks to improvements in technology.
Today, in a reasonably roomy recording both, the Johns are performing their second song in the series, "Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel," for an exclusive Esquire Live Session. The large, bearded Flansburgh stands at the mic in a shirt and sport coat, singing in that familiar voice, which is equally arch and amiable. Still swizzle stick-thin, Linnell, in all black, plays pulsing chords on an electric piano. Both men wear personality-appropriate eyeglasses--Flansburgh's are unfussy and virtually frameless, Linnell's thick, arty, and dark. Drummer Marty Beller, in slim jeans and a T-shirt, is ironically the only one of the three who looks like a rocker. Beller keeps time on the slow but bouncy track, in which Flansburgh, bugged by a woman's "litany of slurs," challenges her to an old-fashioned form of combat. The Giants play the song all the way through. Four times. Like real musicians. Then, agreeing the fourth is a keeper, they come into the playback room to discuss Dial-a-Song's resurrection. And what else they've planned for 2015.
"We started working on this whole project last year," says the chatty Linnell. "Basically, we recorded an album's worth of material and then some. And we're still recording. None of it has come out, except for the two songs that have been posted. It's a bit like the movies, where there's a long lead time. In other words, you start to write songs long before you've recorded material that sounds like anything."
Linnell turns to his longtime bandmate. "How many songs have you abandoned in the last year?"
"A hundred and fifty," Flansburgh says as if describing used Kleenex.
TMBG knows that Dial-a-Song has the natural lure of all great novelties (the endeavor was originally inspired by Dial-a-Prayer, which began in the mid-'50s and gave Christians a chance at redemption via a taped telephone message). But there's also something else more genuine afoot.
"Because of the name, Dial-a-Song, it's hard for people not to think they know what it's going to be like," Linnell says. "Last week, we put out our first song, called 'Erase.' It's a full production and sounds like a They Might Be Giants priority track. People were surprised because they assumed that Dial-a-Song was going to be mostly sketches. The truth is, this is really the project we're doing this year. We're going to release albums of this material. We're gonna hopefully record 52 quality songs. A huge creative challenge. Ultimately, that's really the story. People are wondering, what's the stunt-y part? The stunt-y part is figuring out how to do something we're really proud of."
TMBG begins a residency at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn this week, with a national tour in the spring. One gets the feeling that going out and playing will recharge the duo's batteries for this marathon of writing and recording.
"I just want to make it clear we're not writing a new song every week," Linnell says when asked about deadlines. "I mean, we're always writing, just not with any actual schedule. It's not Lucille Ball and the chocolate-ball production line. We also have a good backlog of songs nobody has heard."
"We want to curate what goes out," Flansburgh adds. "We want to create something people are excited about. Of course, we're scared of even trying to put out a song a week. It would be nice to be less scared."
"So it's not a question of putting out Pet Sounds every week?"
"Well, we're always trying to make Pet Sounds," Linnell says. "But deadlines are necessary. The thing about working, with us? It's always a tortoise-like process. Deadlines definitely help. But we don't speed up and we don't slow down as a result. We're just taking as long as it takes."