With apologies to a certain crafty beverage ad, it can be said without reservation: “They Might Be Giants are the most interesting band in the world.” While it may not yet be the case that sharks have a week dedicated to them, over the course of nearly thirty years writing and recording songs, the song writing duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the co-founders of They Might Be Giants (TMBG), have seemingly done it all. Artistically, the band can point to a broad range of accomplishments: iconic singles, cutting edge music videos, off-the-wall lyrics, and a dynamic stage presence, often featuring a grab bag of musical instruments.
On the business side, the band has not only thrived commercially, but has been a pioneer in the electronic distribution of music and was one of the earliest to embrace and cultivate multimedia channels. And then there is the Zelig-like quality of the band to continue to leave its mark on pop culture. After releasing Apollo 18, an album with little direct literal connection to space travel, the band was invited by NASA to serve as musical ambassadors for the space program. A foray into TV and movie soundtrack work resulted in a Grammy Award for a quirky song for an oddball breakout TV series, Malcolm in the Middle. A series of works for children resulted in another Grammy Award. Yet in speaking with co-founder and accordionist John Linnell, one gets the impression that the band’s ability to remain one step ahead of the industry is less the product of conscious design, but a function of creativity and non-stop activity, combined with incredibly fortuitous timing.
(Idlewind / Rounder; US: 19 Jul 2011; UK: 1 Aug 2011)
The band is currently undertaking a flurry of promotional appearances in support of their 15th album, Join Us, including shows at venues as diverse as the Apple store in Manhattan, the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn, and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. On this particular night, the band is playing for some of their most diehard fans, a select group of radio station contest winners invited to an evening of “Giants and Jellies” on Chicago’s lakefront, showcasing Shedd Aquarium’s new jellyfish exhibit.
So why do songwriters experience writer’s block? Why can’t they get over a sophomore slump? Why do bands hit a creative wall?With their 15th album, TMBG have added to their impressive canon with a sprawling set of tracks, each distinct in affording a unique perspective, sound, or musical direction.
A conversation with TMBG co-founder John Linnell about the band’s approach to songwriting confirms the key to the band’s longevity: a persistent sense of wanderlust and intellectual curiosity, reflected in an undiminished enthusiasm to write new songs. John describes a straightforward method for keeping the music fresh. “We take the approach of thinking, as we work on a new song, what would be interesting now? As we make a new album, we wonder what it would be like if we were starting over fresh, and this was the first song we were writing. We keep things interesting by keeping ourselves interested, by writing and recording an album that we would like to listen to.”
The band’s savvy ability to cultivate new opportunities, seems to demonstrate an acute awareness of the band’s place within the career lifecycle of the music business. Whether it was understanding the band’s appeal as multimedia performers as these other media forms were developing, or a well-timed entry into children’s music, as the band and their fan base became family oriented, TMBG seem well placed to serve as a model for emerging bands seeking to navigate the rough music economy. That the band seems to arrive at its decisions, as much from serendipity than conscious planning is reflected in the band’s sheepish reaction to the band’s good fortune.
John’s enthusiasm for the new album, however, is infectious. Hearing him describe the song-writing process, one understands the core dynamic that is central to their appeal: two best friends who met in high school in Massachusetts, and who never outgrew a common passion for songwriting. Over the years, the two Johns seem to follow a division of labor: John Linnell focusing on the technical aspects of the song-writing process, while much of the lyrical interpretation is left to John Flansburgh.
John Linnell spoke about their deliberate approach to songwriting, a function of the band’s comfort level working in a familiar environment.
“This time around, we had a very slow rollout relatively speaking. We didn’t have as strict a timetable as we historically have had. We didn’t have a master plan. We didn’t do anything fundamentally different from our usual routine of arranging, starting with the basic stripped down song and then adding instruments. For us, songs are fun to make.
“What was unusual was the amount of time we spent on the songs. We were just stirring the marinade for quite a long time, thinking the longer we spend, the longer it will be.” He attributes this to a comfort level. “We have been working with Dan, Danny, and Marty for ten years and with Patrick Dillett for twenty. We started recording some of the songs a couple of years ago. Canajoharie comes from the huge amount of material we recorded for the previous album.”
What’s striking about the new album is the wide range of songs on the new album, reflecting not only the band’s diverse interests, but perhaps a legacy of the TMBG “dial-a-song concept”. Unlike other bands, who might strive for a certain style or feel on a particular album, TMBG does not really consciously seek to develop themes for albums. So while some bands may feel threatened by the digital age, in which listeners can circumvent the artist’s design by purchasing individual tracks, TMBG welcomes the opportunity to offer listeners a diverse range of songs on each release. “We always seem to fall down on developing a theme. We wish we could create a thread that runs throughout the whole album, but we never have really done that.” The band does, however put forward singles to promote the rest of the songs on an album.
There have been occasions when the band has planned out concepts for their songs. “We had a project called Venue Songs, where we deliberately wrote about places where we performed. Naturally when we return, we highlight the song, playing it at least once and often as part of the encore. The songs have become themes for us when we visit their town.
“But generally, we don’t plan stuff out. The key to the way we mostly work is that we don’t know what we’re doing when we write, but we then take the best work from us.” An exception to this is “When Will you Die”, a song that due to its complexity required some advance planning.
“Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, jumps out as an obvious candidate among several strong tracks to be the new single, with the potential to emerge as one of those pitch perfect, roll down the window summer pop singles. The puckish quality of Johnny would lead one to a reasonable question—is Johnny a kid or an adult? Or would this fit in as a children’s song?
“He’s really a little of both. Johnny is really childish. When you think about it, Johnny is really a bit of a dick. We really liked the idea of putting on this costume. Notice that John and I are both named John. Songwriters tend to imagine the character of the person who is singing it. Almost everyone writes first person narrative person songs. Even Sheryl Crow—the person she describes in her song is not Sheryl but a character.”
The album is replete with interesting characters. One technique that the band has mastered is its seeming ability to get inside the diverse range of characters, often fanciful, that make up a TMBG album. John notes, “While we can’t help but be ourselves on some level, we have these instincts as we write to transcend whatever intentions that we have. It’s very important to us to lose ourselves completely in the character.”
“Judy Is Your Viet Nam”, a quick number that takes the listener through a deteriorating dysfunctional relationship, sure to be a standout in future sets, did not start out as a song about a doomed relationship. The song takes one rapidly through the story of Judy, a rocker in the ‘90s, who seems to be the life of her party. Ten years on, it’s the same apartment but the roommates are gone. The whirlwind impact of Judy, a seemingly unhealthy infatuation, is accentuated by the song’s brevity. It also produces the effect of showing how quickly time can pass: same old Judy, ten years on. Is she someone we should know? “We don’t even know a Judy” observed John Flansburgh wryly, after blitzing through the song to the aquarium party-goers. “It’s more the universal Judy, like the Ramones.”
The child-like character of Johnny, and the childlike curiosity that infuses much of their family friendly work begs the question, is there a relationship between their adult and children’s albums? “With our children’s work we were not consciously trying to make a kids record. It has not really been the case of the kids work influencing adult work. If anything it went the other way—we started writing kid music without even thinking specifically that the music might be appropriate for kids, so you could say the adult work influenced kid work.”
As is the case with much of their music, the songs defy literal interpretation. TMBG have made it a standard practice for putting music out there that is not meant to be taken literally, they often don’t think of the obvious meaning entailed in a lyric, as in the case of John Linnell’s State song project, that threw literalists for a loop with state songs like Idaho which documents John Lennon’s purported claim he could drive a house while hallucinating, or South Carolina about trying to profit off a bicycle accident. While John Linnell defers most of the direct questions about lyric writing to Flans, he notes that Flans has taken lyric writing in a very interesting direction, a more elliptical, more mysterious, in a good way,
“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is followed immediately by “You Probably Get That a Lot”, a song their publicist describes, perhaps helpfully, as “the caffeinated fuzz that will command you to pogo!” The song does pack a powerful punch, along with the TMBG trademark common-sense phrases as “Way swing your head while strolling fancy free / melting down green army guys to make green tea / act like I’m stating the obvious”. So is this song a comment on celebrity? Is it a reaction to what people say to the band when they first meet them? A song about doing interviews? Or the perspective of a woman who is always getting hit on?
“The song is not about celebritydom or really meant literally. It’s actually reflects a way people have to talking about things, so is actually more about ordinary people s relationships. We also mention Cephalphore, which by the way is actually a great Wikipedia entry. Cephalphore was actually a martyred saint who carries his head around, after being decapitated. We imagined how weird it would be to be walking around in the afterlife. But the song is really about ordinary people. We used a weird device to reduce this concept to a gag.”
While the band is perhaps best known for its iconic singles and the treasure trove of encyclopedic references that populates their song, a boon to fans ready to undertake a pop culture scavenger hunt, the band has garnered praise for their superior musicianship. The new album is a showcase for the diverse range of the band’s material, which points to the band’s eclectic influences. “Old Pine Box”, with its harmonies, prominent use of the vocoder, and old world folk sound, replete with handclaps, are reminiscent of old world cross-over work like R.E.M.‘s “Out of Time”. The song captures the band’s flair for unusual lyrics: And it wouldn’t be TMBG without some trademark riffs: “They tried the handcuffs but they won’t lock, electrical courses but they won’t shock, you pulled the fire alarm, you tried punching a cop, you’re just too tired to stop your old pine box….. They called relations but they declined. They called the fan club but they’d resigned.”
One of the more inventive songs is Cloisonne, featuring prominent use of the Bass clarinet played by John Linnell to create a Balkan-tined track seemingly at home in a Jim Jarmusch movie, or a Brian Eno-David Byrne collaboration. Any song that refers to the task of making cloisonné, with my three blind cats will seemingly bring much needed attention to a legion of obscure hobbyists and craftsmen. And therein lies the answer to the issue of keeping songs fresh. They Might Be Giants seem to keep it simple. It’s about songs. How can you run out of things to talk about, when you haven’t discussed the joys of cloisonné?
John Linnell, with his focus more on the technical side of songwriting, relishes the challenges of taking songs that were engineered for the studio live. The punkish “When Will You Die” shows off the band’s collegial nature, with shout outs to each of the band members: “This is Dan and that’s Dan, and that’s Marty on the drums. To compete the band and I’m John and he is also John. And all of us are wondering ‘When you’re gonna die?’” It was also one of the most complex tracks of the session, and required quite a bit of planning before recording it in the studio.
“Our songs sound a lot different way when we’re performing, which is a wise thing to do with a song like Cloisonné. With tracks that have a very studio-centric sound, we don’t want to get caught up on exactly reproducing it for alive show. The best approach is to do a good sounding live version that treats song differently. ‘When Will You Die’ was a special challenge. It was recorded at a slower speed, with the band playing a lot slower and slower. We then took the track and sped up it, so the effect is that the music sounds like a chipmunk orchestra, while the vocals are sung at a normal speed. The song required a lot of planning ahead to make sure that the key pitch and tempos work out. It will be interesting to see how this comes out live.”
John is proud of the band’s continuing experimentation and conceptual twists. “Check out ‘Spoiler Alert’”, he suggests excitedly. “It’s really two songs. One is in the left channel, one is in the right channel. Check it out! Unplug one speaker, then the other, and you’ll find that Flans will be singing two songs on separate channels, that when they are played together, are conceptually linked together”.
The album yields one discovery after another. The funk tinge of “Dog Walker” shows off the influence of the Dust Brothers. “Lady and the Tiger”, its juicy dialogue placing a twist on the traditional story, refer variously to starving the beast, using laser vision to burn a hole in the wall, and destroying the lady in the tiger, all over a groove reminiscent of Beck. The upbeat electro beat of “Celebration”, could easily be the high point of a future set. “In Fact”, another song that was musically fun to record features a trumpet that shuffles along. The band plans to have a horn section join them on stage. And then perhaps the musical highlight, one of the album’s loveliest songs, is also one of its most straightforward: “Canajoharie”, a song written as a demo for the last album.
The lifecycle for musicians seems pre-determined. Bands find their creative peak early, hoping to seize the make or break window of opportunity, then spend the extended period seeking to maintain their momentum, their relevancy. Band members grow up, have families, and if they fortunate, age gracefully along with their fans. TMBG went about this a different way, making their mark as the two boyhood Johns, and then fairly early on, weathered some controversy from die-hard fans by becoming a full-fledged band. The band takes the lifecycle in stride. Time with their families accompanied their highly successful decision to write children’s albums. These days, John Linnell spends much of his free time with his family, so doesn’t keep up on the newest bands or trends as much as Flans. “I’m feeling more ignorant, but as time moves forward, we consider ourselves lucky that we have established ourselves to the point where we can rely on other approaches, but also continue to get involve in other projects that are more grassroots-y.”
Part and parcel of being a musician is being engaged in promotion, and TMBG have never shied away from these responsibilities. Despite putting together a lifetime of achievements that seemingly pave the way for a DIY approach, John is still very much a fan of the old world approach to promotion.
“I may only be speaking through my hat, but while there is a lot of attention on social media, I agree with the received wisdom that you always need some kind of economic or institutional apparatus to promote music. As much as people say it’s becoming more grassroots-y, resources and PR do make everything happen. You can’t really skip out on that step. This may sound completely cynical, a band could just suddenly erupt and become big—but PR is still the most reliable to get the word out on new projects, even as the traditional venues are kind of collapsing. I’m probably the last person to ask about where the music industry is headed.”
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