The Gibson Classic Interview: They Might Be Giants' Dan Miller

Gibson, 2005
by Courtney Grimes

They Might Be Giants (TMBG). Named after a '60s movie with George C. Scott, the underground pop/rock/hint-of-polka group continues to Flood the hearts of millions. The group's core duo, John Flansburgh and John Linnell (The Johns), began their friendship in junior high, but didn't begin to work together musically until 1981 in Brooklyn.

During the '80s, the Johns released their first two albums, their self-titled They Might Be Giants (1985) and Lincoln (1988), which garnered attention from most of the country, and led the Giants to a constant touring schedule (with a guitar and a four-track recorder) as well as their first national TV spot on "The Late Show with David Letterman." By 1990, the Johns signed with Elektra Records and put out their third album, Flood, with the contributions of several guest musicians. Along with the release of Flood, came another flood--They Might Be Giants were becoming alternative college radio superstars, and soon thereafter, expanded their sound to include a full band.

In the meantime, Gibson rocker Dan Miller was flooding stages as well in North Carolina with Lincoln, a band of his own. Lincoln was asked to open for TBMG and after Dan left Lincoln, the Giants asked him to join them. Dan came onboard in 1997, just in time to help propel the Giants to "the hardest working men in show business" status and celebrate the group's 20th Anniversary in 2002.

Dan, who has just returned from a "Giant" trip to L.A., chats in an online interview about who he's dating, Devry applications, and his career highlight involving a two-year-old.

How was L.A.?

L.A. was a total gas. Every time we head out there, something exciting and very L.A. happens. We seem to lead very ordinary (thanks the stars) life here in NYC, but for some reason, when we head out west we live these lives that belong to someone else. We did this taping for MusicChoice at the House of Blues on Sunset. Since I don't have cable, can someone Tivo it for me? The gig was going along great when the lighting board blew a gasket. As any budding A/V aide knows, lighting is a crucial part of television, without it we would have no idea which Olsen twin was which. So, the show stops dead in its tracks while the crew figures out how to proceed. I'm not sure what the solution was, but I think using a dimmer switch had a lot to do with it. Eventually the show gets up and running again and we had a grand old time. I think it came out very great.

The next evening we did an in-store at Amoeba Music. There were so many people that they had to close the doors, which for a record store can't be a good thing. For me, that was the highlight of the trip. We've been doing some family music recently and it's great to see parents and their kids boppin' along while standing in the "New Age Heavy Metal" section of the store. At one point I looked down and a two-year-old was giving me the thumbs up--a career highlight.

How did you come onboard with the band?

The bass player (Danny Weinkauf) and I were in a band called Lincoln. For about 18 months, on and off, we opened for TMBG. I quit the band in Winston-Salem, NC in a scene that can be replicated by watching the hotel outtakes from "The Song Remains the Same." I believe the hotel still has a lien on my house. I hitched home and was sitting on the sofa filling out applications for the Devry Institute when the phone rang. It was Flans (John Flansburgh) asking me if I wanted to go on tour with the Giants. When I awoke from hitting my head on the ceiling I started learning the tunes.

A Quick aside for historical reason:

I head down to the rehearsal space for my first time playing with the band. For this tour the band had expanded to include horns and the like. I walked into the room, as nervous as could be, and began what has to be the worst audition in the history of music. My nerves were shredded and I couldn't play a right note to save my life. I think the horn players thought that I'd walked into the wrong room. We took a break and figured if I hurried I could get those Devry applications out that night. As I sat dejected in the corner the Johns came up to me and basically said, hey man, this isn't an audition, you already have the gig--just relax. The results of those kind words were that I relaxed and played way better for the remaining time. It was a moment of great generosity from the Johns and I remain appreciative to this day.

We went on the road a week or two later and that's that. I think it was about eight (Good God!!) years ago. It's been one sweet ride since then.

What is your favorite TMBG song?

It's hard to have a consistent favorite. I enjoy playing certain songs at certain times. There is acoustic solo in front of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" that I really enjoy doing. It's a chance to work into the show some things that I've been working on in private study. The only criterion is that at some point I state the melody to show the crowd where we're heading. If the tune is going well the band will join in and it becomes this spontaneous composition. When the stars align and I've done my finger exercises I think it's one of the high points of the show as neither we nor the crowd know how it's going to end up. Occasionally it's a train wreck, but there is learning in those times, too.

Overall, the songs I enjoy playing are the songs where I can learn something from each performance. One of the great things about TMBG is that we're all free to try different things on different nights. I have a real problem with repetition, as I get bored quickly. Obviously, you always try to stay inside the music, but beyond that you can try out different things.

And a favorite non-TMBG song?

There's a lot of music I really dig listening to. Growing up on XTC and the whole British thing, I am glad that their influence is coming back around with this new crop of bands. Beyond that I suspect that I have pretty ordinary tastes in music--I don't really focus on guitary music, a lot of that is really just an excuse to play your Guitar Center licks. I think musicianship goes behind songwriting and energy--if it's a good song then I'm on board. I only notice great playing if it comes with a good song. I can't seem to focus on musicianship if I don't like the tune.

Tell me about your Gibsons.

I have a few. The one I'm playing a lot these days is the Les Paul Deluxe. I read somewhere that the mini-humbuckers were the replacement for the P-90--an attempt to pull back on the "my god--who's buzzing like crazy" that the P's can have sometimes. True to the word, I find the Deluxe tight, punchy and nicely heavy in the mid-range, like a P-90 but without the sound engineer throwing something at me.

I just did a session where I was playing it. The engineer was planning all these plug-ins and do-dads to help the sound along, but when he heard the tone he just hit record and away we went. The amp was cranked and the guitar really sailed on its own.

I also have an early '80s 335. This was my first foray into the world that is Gibson and it's been a steady friend for many a year. I love the slightly wider neck that allows me to reach stuff that my genetically fat fingers say otherwise. Our tech Robbie has done some very minor enhancements to it so that it feels super comfortable and solid as a rock. I don't think the neck has moved for ten years.

One big must for a traveling musician is the reliability of your guitars. The last thing you need when you're on tour is to show up at the gig and have to do a reset or re-intonate the guitar. It's a real vibe killer that I have had to deal with many times on lesser instruments. Both of these Gibsons have shown to be all-weather friends.

Which one is your favorite?

I'm dating the Deluxe these days.

Do you think it's been harder, having a more underground following than a mainstream radio fan base?

I think it's been a total hidden blessing to be an underground band. Although, I do feel that we have peeked our heads above ground occasionally over the years. Survival in the music industry is essentially a myth. Take 10,000 budding musicians, whittle that down to the 2,000 who get to make records, whittle that down to the 20 that actually sell and then whittle that down to the two who can still afford to make music five years down the road.

I think what TMBG have been part of is creating a new way of thinking about what defines success for a band. As the band moves forward I'm constantly amazed at the variety of projects we take on. Everyone knows that the conditions are changing and musicians have to adapt to the new climate. What used to be the charts is now the list of the most popular p2p downloads. The Giants' natural instincts are to make creative music, regardless of the format or outlet. This may be defined as 'underground' but my guess is that this will, or already has, become the mainstream way for working bands. Long live the Underground!

TMBG has been around for over 20 years. In your opinion, how do you keep gaining the attention of young audiences, while keeping the older ones?

This is a question that I've been asking myself for many years. It seems like we're cloning our audience every five or six years. How it happens is a mystery to me, but God bless it. One reason may be what I was talking about earlier. Another, as I pat myself on the back, is the live show. For me, certain things about live music should remain a constant--if you can't connect to the audience in your own special way, then you need to re-think your show. The Johns are exceptionally good at connecting to the people who come to see the show. Give us a good night without the technical snafus (not that often) and we'll give you a live experience you're not likely to find elsewhere.

Another small point is that TMBG is the kind of music you have to seek out and that makes it special. When I was growing up the music that I had to hunt for, the stuff that was not played all over the radio, was the stuff I was, and still am, into most. Music makes up a big part of who I am. Whatever illusions I live under, I don't want the 'me' to be the most popular thing out there.

If you could offer one piece of advice to up-and-coming guitarists, what would it be?

This may sound like a joke, but I know it would work. If you figure out every part Jimmy Page laid down in Led Zeppelin, including leads and rhythm, you will be one the best guitarists in the world. He covers so many styles and still found a way to bring himself into it. The more I listen (and attempt to figure out), the more respect I have. If you manage to do this, let me know, 'cause you can show me some things. I once read an interview with Elliot Easton and he claimed that every day he figured out at least one new thing. That makes sense to me. Oh yeah--write great songs!!