They Might Be Giants @ The Triffid

"The Giants are a band that have always been more concerned with existential questions than aesthetic ones."

The Music, February 22, 2019
by Roshan Clerke

Pop culture dichotomies are some of the central tenets of geekdom. They’re the final frontier of fandom, tempting usually perfectly sensible people to boldly go where no sane person would ordinarily dare to venture: into the murky quagmire of superlatives and subjective value judgements. Having irrational, indefensible opinions is one of the simple joys in life.

Whether it’s pitting content against form (XTC Vs Adam Ant) or the individual against the cosmos (Particle Man), They Might Be Giants have shown no hesitation in encouraging these types of combative fantasies. Even their band name is an indirect reference to perhaps the most famous imaginary battle in literature: Don Quixote against the world (the aspiring knight rides against windmills, believing them to be "monstrous giants").

Returning to Australia off the back of the physical release of their 20th full-length album, last year’s I Like Fun, the American band have taken this sport one step further. Rather than quixotically attempting to whittle a setlist from their extensive catalogue, the Giants have organised a string of two-night stands in each of the major cities, presenting selections from their ’80s material against their 2010s music one night, and pitting their ’90s material against their '00s output during the other. Even better, they’re playing double sets each night, with an intermission in between and encores afterwards. 

Those attending the Thursday night show in Brisbane were treated to fan favourites from the band’s first two albums, as well as their more recent material. However, despite some fears from the audience, their encores included ‘90s hits The Guitar, Birdhouse In Your Soul, and Dr Worm; the Giants give the people what they want (“The fascists have their outfits,” they sing in one of their new songs, but “the communists have the music”).

This evening, the band are playing selections from the ‘90s and the '00s. It’s good news for fans of the band’s 1990 album, Flood, the group’s certified platinum record which features cult hits like Particle Man, Whistling In The Dark, and Twisting; for those fans who have been here at The Triffid both nights, it’s a veritable smorgasbord.

Flansburgh and Linnell – the two founding members, both named John – have made music as the Giants for over 35 years, and Dan Miller (guitar), Danny Weinkauf (bass) and Marty Beller (drums) have all spent at least a decade touring together. Their experience shows, not only in terms of technical achievement, such as during the Fingertips suite from the group’s 1992 Apollo 18 album, but also in the way they relate to each other on stage; Linnell seems genuinely amused by Flansburgh’s wisecracks about everything from Fyre Festival documentaries (“It’s assholes all the way down”) to their impending retirement, while Flansburgh himself works each corner of the stage to compensate for Linnell’s necessarily stationary stance behind the keyboard. They’re a well oiled musical machine, and it would be a sin not to mention that Mark Pender’s trumpet-playing is equally virtuosic during songs like Istanbul, Your Racist Friend, and Dr Worm

So, the inevitable question: which night is better? Perhaps it is irrelevant. The Giants are a band that have always been more concerned with existential questions than aesthetic ones, their music often fixating on the necessity of death; consider I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die, for example. As for the content versus form debate at the heart of XTC Vs Adam Ant, here is their conclusion: “Time is marching on... There is no right or wrong.” It’s similar to the advice Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, tells him: “Until death, it’s all life.”