Quirk Rock: An Interview with They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants
The Else

John Linnell and John Flansburgh joined forces in 1982 to make music. Quirky, fun music. And 25 years later, it’s no longer a question that they might be giants, they are — to college rock fans of the late ’80s, to television viewers of the ’90s and beyond, and to the preschool set of today. With the release of their latest album, The Else, They Might Be Giants are, as Linnell puts it, “doing a pretty rollicking business on iTunes” weeks ahead of the CD’s release in brick-and-mortar stores on 10 July 2007. While it’s hard to pinpoint what is specifically spurring on the album’s early success, their collaboration with the Dust Bros. has certainly helped. It’s even more remarkable when taking into account the Two Johns probably wouldn’t have even considered an alliance like this one 15 years ago. But the seeds were planted when the Dust Bros. remixed “Snail Shell” off of 1994’s John Henry in what Linnell reflects back on as “a very easy, pleasant experience.”

That experience led to other producers “getting a hand in there and messing around with our stuff more than we would have been comfortable with, you know, in the beginning of our career,” Linnell said. He came to the conclusion that “working with, for example, with Adam Schlesinger [of Fountains of Wayne], and the last time we worked with Clive Langer [on 1990’s Flood], we were enjoying the process of having somebody else really get involved with the arrangements and bring something to the sound that was completely different from what we would have done on our own.” He sums up their evolution by saying, “We felt … not so uptight anymore” about letting a third party in on the process.

The Dust Bros. influence is felt throughout The Else, but is most apparent on tracks like “Take Out the Trash” and “Withered Hope”. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” Linnell admits, “but it seemed like we cooked up a bunch of unusual ways of working for us that I think worked out pretty well.” Of course, there was the issue of disparate methods in each of the camps. Where Linnell and Flansburgh are models of efficiency in the studio, making decisions and moving on quickly, the Dust Bros. “sit and listen to stuff over and over again and then make little tweaks and make what seemed like very subtle suggestions” by comparison. But despite the divergent approaches, Linnell feels a bond, in part because “we kind of are from the same generation, so there was a basis for a relationship, but they’re also really different. They’re different guys. They’re chemically altered guys. John and I, I mean, we’re chemically altered in a different way: We drink a lot of coffee.”

The same technology that allowed They Might Be Giants to collaborate with the Dust Bros. from opposite coasts and is propelling their sales on iTunes is also what’s skewing the music industry. For Linnell, the heart of the issue is “How soon is the CD gonna die?” Because “clearly there is this invisible world of people just acquiring music online that isn’t graphable because they are not paying for it … and that obviously affects everything that is visible.” Linnell illustrates his point, noting “it’s now really remarkable to sell a couple million copies of a CD. That used to be, sort of, ‘Who cares?’ And now it’s like, ‘Wow.'” But the tactile experience is not necessarily one Linnell is personally willing to forego just yet. “I like having things to hold and pictures to look at,” Linnell shares before turning ever-so-slightly nostalgic. “Our first couple of records were big ol’ LPs. I really miss that experience, that big, big piece of art, you know, it’s the size of a painting.” And so, along with the digital and CD formats, The Else will also be released on vinyl in gatefold packaging.

Part of considering himself “an old man” includes parenting for Linnell. And back in 2002, They Might Be Giants released No!, their first official children’s release. Met with universal acclaim, they were encouraged by “the idea that we’d be cooking up music for people who might not have been exposed to any particular thing that we were doing ever before.” They were also jazzed by the idea they’d be able to say to kids: “This is the very first funk song you’ll ever hear, and we made it up!” But it runs deeper than that. “The kids — young kids — who listen to music are not listening in a cultural context. They don’t think critically the way adults do about stuff. I mean, they do think critically about stuff, but they don’t think of stuff in the context of the history of children’s music,” Linnell observes, then quickly corrects, noting that his son “has a very different attitude about the stuff he consumes … In other words, he doesn’t have a historical idea of what his stuff is, like ‘Oh, this is derivative.'” And that is what seems to propel Linnell and Flansburgh in their children’s music endeavors and led them to Disney a couple of years ago.

In 2005, the Two Johns entered into that relationship with eyes wide open. Linnell cautions, “I hate to say anything mean about the people who pay my bills, but this is not a secret. I think everybody senses that Disney is a monolithic music and entertainment factory that’s not particularly about specific personal and artistic expression.” But they were fortunate enough to hook up with David Agnew, the head of Disney Records and the man responsible for bringing another geek-rock band, Devo, to a new generation by working with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale on the reconstituted Devo 2.0, “who basically offered to let us do exactly what we wanted with the first DVD that we did for those guys [Here Come the ABCs].” The comfort level extended to the point of allowing Linnell and Flansburgh the freedom to “just make it up, hire the animators ourselves, and write all the songs, and he [Agnew] seemed… to just give his stamp of approval and kind of stick his neck out at Disney to let us do this, to kind of take responsibility for it.” And both sides continue to flourish with the pending release of the follow-up, Here Come the 123s, later this year.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a moment early on where they did actually question their decision to partner with “the Beast with Four Fingers.” Linnell relates, “John and I flew out to Burbank to meet people there and play some of our songs and, you know, did some schmoozing. And, so we went out to L.A. and in the morning we got picked up at our hotel by this van that was black and had, like, really dark tinted windows and this guy in this suit [who] looks like a Secret Service guy — he opened the door for us and we got in, and he slammed the door behind us. And then John turned to me and said, ‘I wonder if this was the van where they removed Hillary Duff’s soul?'”

Souls still intact, John and John have gone on to combine their love of television-related work with the Mouse. Having created and/or performed theme songs and incidental TV music elsewhere over the years for the likes of Malcolm in the Middle and The Daily Show, they produced the theme songs for Playhouse Disney’s Higglytown Heroes and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. While he concedes that “maybe it’s overreaching to say that it’s like personal expression because you’re working for somebody else when you’re writing TV music, but … it doesn’t feel like something alien to us.” And that familiarity, that comfort working within the medium stretches back to his own childhood, where “it seemed like there was a kind of music that was enjoyed and yet unrecognized which was playing in everybody’s heads when we were growing up which was not just TV theme music, but TV incidental music and commercial music and stuff like that that seemed to be very much a part of everybody’s musical vocabulary.”

“We were really, really allergic to the notion of having our stuff influenced in any way with the poisonous taint [of Madison Avenue],” Linnell says of their commercial work. “We were so uptight about that in the beginning [of our career], and you know obviously we’ve relaxed a lot. I think we feel mainly that we’re confident about our own ability to see the difference.” That openness, combined with the influences of their childhood, has allowed They Might Be Giants to move easily between their chosen genres — college rock/adult music, children’s music, and TV music. He admits they’ve done some “really mercenary stuff — done incidental music for TV and stuff that no one would ever even know was us because it’s just absolutely work-for-hire.” But Linnell still feels “good about the stuff we do that’s personal expression, that we haven’t forgotten how to do that.”

While technology has always played a large role in how They Might Be Giants create and interact with their fans, it has never defined the band. And that is by design, because Linnell has “never felt like that should be the focus for us to, sort of, fetishize the technology,” instead believing that it has always been “most useful when it was invisible, like when it’s just a delivery system and you don’t have to think too hard about, you know, how you’re gonna get stuff.” From the early days of Dial-A-Song, to their enhanced CD content, to the regular podcasts, it’s hard to deny the role technology continues to play in their career, and their independent artist ethos are backed by their confidence in offering their fans free mp3 downloads.

That embrace of technological advancements spilled over in a very tangible way recently, when the Two Johns performed three nights with the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots (LEMUR). Sharing the bill with a range of composers and performers, Linnell “was really impressed with what everybody did,” and the desire to “try and do something subtle … with some dynamic to it,” propelled They Might be Giants to do “a quiet ballad with the robots, and that went over pretty well. It was interesting, it was weird.” It played to their strengths.

To be a fan of They Might Be Giants has always been a participatory experience. Linnell seems to relish the idea of challenging preconceived notions with things like the LEMUR show or the original Dial-A-Song concept of “picking up the phone, and it’s like this thing that’s usually reserved for something that’s really functional and boring … not necessarily boring, but just a different kind of experience, and instead you’re standing there holding the phone to your ear listening to a song.” The fans don’t seem to have strayed too far over the years, and Linnell says “it seems oddly that, like vampires, they are continuing to come back, and they are not aging.” Although he doesn’t “really quite get why we continue to have such a good, solid, and loyal audience that is not aging at the same rate we are,” Linnell acknowledges that it has something to do with “this sort of college culture that is continually refreshing the audience” and the fan base that “latched on to what we were doing as kids and still considered it interesting or appropriate as they got older to come see us.”

Like the experience they provide for their audience, Linnell sees music as an engaged practice, finding the idea of having music on in the background “to be sort of difficult. I can’t really have the music on and be doing something else.” And yet, he turns around and readily admits to enjoying “reading and eating at the same time. Those two things I have no problem combining!”

Reflecting on their diverse, solid 25 years in the music industry, Linnell feels “like we had a couple of recognizable tracks when we were in the late ’80s that were different enough from one another that people had this idea that we did a range of stuff.” He defines their career thus far in typical They Might Be Giants fashion: “We’ve got a pretty long leash that we’ve created for ourselves, and we get to run around the yard, sniff the trees.”

It seems there’s still plenty of yard to explore and trees to mark.