Consumable Online interview (Oct. 94)
INTERVIEW: They Might Be Giants Consumable Online recently caught up with John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. Flansburgh and John Linnell comprise the main part of this group, best known for their quirky songs such as "Don't Let's Start", "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul". On their most recent release, _John Henry_, the duo employed several full time musicians to add to their breadth and depth. How busy was he this day? While we were conducting the interview, John was doing his dishes - it's hard to do that when you're on the road most of the time. He had been giving interviews for seven hours straight. But, in between, he was told that the St. Louis show sold out in 90 minutes. The hectic pace comes with the territory when you're as in demand as They Might Be Giants. C: Your new album, _John Henry_, is the first album you've had a full band on. What triggered the decision to implement a full backing band? TMBG: Well, it was a practical thing - we were going out on a long tour in the middle of 1992 (for _Apollo 18_) and we were trying to change up the show. We had toured for a year solid in 1991 (for _Flood_) and then went out in the beginning of 1992 as a duo and it struck us that even though we had added a half dozen songs to the show, it was hard to make the show seem different from what we had done in 1990. We didn't want to do a big national tour that was the same as the 1990 show. C: That was when you had the backing music and such accompanying you? TMBG: Yeah, we were working with a drum machine; we spent 1991 working on _Apollo 18_ and not working on a live show, so we were trying to figure out how to spice up the show. We decided to bring in some side musicians to play a couple songs and at some point, we decided that might be too weird to have someone on the road to play only three songs - it was an indulgence of sorts. I had been playing drums in the show for a few songs - which was interesting - so we were almost dipping our big toe in the live rhythm section. We auditioned some people, rehearsed for a few weeks with a five piece lineup and it started working. The audience's response has been really receptive. Over the last couple years, the lineup has changed a bit - Kurt (Hoffman, horns) has left the band to work on some movie soundtrack projects. We're now a six piece - we added Randy Ando, who plays trombone as well as tuba. We're expanding - it's nice to have a full horn section. C: So, how long have you been together now - it must be nearing ten years? TMBG: We've actually been together since 1983. We played in crummy clubs for three years or so. C: What's the best and worst things about having a band playing behind you? TMBG: The best and worst parts are intrinsically linked. It's an intimately more social thing - the up and down sides of that are a total constant now. It's really fun hanging out with these people and it's musically challenging to work with them; there are all sorts of levels to pursue what you're doing. On a personal level, as a musician, it's really opened up a whole new area for me. Writing for horns is really exciting, hearing the music *become* a full blown band sound - I feel like I'm lucky to hear these great players work on my songs. It's really wonderful and rewarding to work with a great bunch of guys. The other side - John and I have this responsibility of being band leaders, which means to some extent, we have to think of ourselves as bosses. For us, that's uncomfortable - we want to be fair, we want to do right by these guys, but it makes things complicated. We've (the two Johns) have always been self-contained which has been a strength, without compromising a thing. We just did our own thing - but now we have to figure out schedules that work for us - it's a whole new level of complexity. C: I notice one song is written by four of you on _John Henry_ - "A.K.A. Driver" - and the rest were written by you and John. Were there any problems with that - songs that the other members contributed on, that didn't make the final cut? TMBG: No, not at all. John and I are the songwriters on the project - we've been in the band for eleven years and to some extent, They Might Be Giants is linked to the collaboration between the two of us. It's hard for me to imagine how it could work any other way. When they are involved in the writing process, they are credited, but the songs are pretty arranged by the time they get to the band. They bring out the nuances in the material, but the arrangements come down to me and John. C: Other than the band, how did _John Henry_ differ for you from the other albums? TMBG: It was the first record we made outside of New York City (in Bearsville, New York). C: Was that in Todd Rundgren's studio? TMBG: No. Bearsville was built by Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan's manager) and was built to accommodate The Band. Rundgren worked as an engineer there in the mid 1970s and then had his own studio elsewhere in the same town. The reason people associate the two is because Todd Rundgren's works came out on Bearsville Records. There's lots of studios up there - Dreamland Studios is in the town next door and there are a couple other studios as well in the area. Bearsville is a real "A" studio - super swanky and all. It was different because we felt like we were moving - we had to move all the equipment to make the record. The best thing for us was that we took more time to make the record and had an overabundance of material that was road tested from performing it at shows. We never really slowed down once we started working with the guys, between the _Apollo 18_ touring and making the record - we were always adding new songs and working them out in front of the audiences. That fleshed out a lot of the ideas in the arrangements. The weird thing about being in a band that continues to record and has a public life is that you wind up on the treadmill of writing, recording and performing. There's times when you're recording material that you just finished writing. When I listen to "She's Actual Size" (from _Apollo 18_), I would be lying if I said that it didn't make me a little disappointed, because the later performance versions of it have so much more spirit than the recorded version. It was very tentative at the (recording) time because it was just finished. C: So, at the time, it was your best version, but since that time you've improved upon it. TMBG: Yeah - and, it's not so much the arrangement, but the confidence we have when we perform the song. It's frustrating to hear the "definitive" version of the song - I think it's a solid song - to be a timid performance. With _John Henry_, it was the exact opposite. We had the opportunity to perform them and really nail down the best versions; we took the extra time and I think it paid off in terms of quality. C: You mentioned about the "public life" - do you have any problems when you go out, outside of touring, when you're just walking around? TMBG: No, it's not that weird - by and large, because our faces aren't on the record and our videos aren't in heavy rotation (on MTV), we don't have any of those kinds of problems. We're definitely a kook magnet in some ways, and we have had run-ins with people who would be better off in institutions, but it's not a big celebrity crisis. We used to get recognized by the local grocers who would see us on the "Joe Franklin Show", however. C: A couple songs on the new album caught my attention - on "Subliminal", what is the backwards message at the end of the song? TMBG: It's the vocals and the drums of the song, played backwards. When we were making the demos and fooling around, it sounded interesting, and we thought it fit in with the song. C: "Meet James Ensor" is a song on _John Henry_ - can you tell us a little about the man you wrote about? What prompted this? TMBG: In my art history class, while in college, we were bored and all of a sudden his works came up and we were surprised at how exciting it was. He was an expressionist, like other 20th century expressionist painters, who was ahead of his time and was very eccentric. The line "Dig him up and shake his hand" is actually very specific - a parallel idea to a lot of his paintings which involve resurrections, skeletons and puppets being animated. It's not an accident that the language of the song reflects his work. He did a painting - titled something like "Self Portrait in 1970". It's a skeleton, wearing his clothes. He became a phenomenon right before the turn of the century. With the song, I'm trying to encapsulate the issues of his life - an eccentric guy who became celebrated and was soon left behind as his ideas were taken into the culture and other people became expressionists. C: You also did a song about James Polk a while back, as a B-side to one of your singles. Do you feel a need to write songs about unrecognized people? TMBG: Well, James Ensor isn't completely unknown; he's one of the lexicon of modern painters. He's really fresh. I don't feel like I'm an advocate of James K. Polk; in fact,the song is pretty easy on him - we could have been much nastier on him. It's fun to write those kinds of songs. C: What are your favorite songs off of _John Henry_? TMBG: I really like "End of the Tour"; I sort of regret that it's at the end of the record, because I feel it's one of the strongest tracks. I hope people notice it and don't skip through it. C: I think people who buy a They Might Be Giants album will listen to it the entire way through; I don't think you attract the person who hears a single on the radio and buys it for one or two songs, ignoring the rest of the album. It seems that your fans appreciate the whole album. TMBG: Well, I hope that's the case. I think our true fans are like that but it's hard to tell. People get focused on singles. C: And, every moment you or any band is around, someone will accuse you of being a sellout. TMBG: Yeah, you know, I'm just looking forward to *being* a sellout. C: And making the money a sellout gets? TMBG: Fuck yeah!! Why worry? Just one "Short People" and then you're all set... C: Randy Newman now has the creative license to be himself again, and he's financially set for life. TMBG: I just want to go on the record as saying that Randy Newman is one of my great influences. I think his case is a really interesting one; one of my biggest fears is that a song of ours, which works on a sophisticated level, becomes popularly misunderstood - that's certainly the case with "Short People". If it was just an album cut, your appreciation for the song would be completely different. You'd catch the subtleties and notice its charm. But, because it was such a big hit, it's been completely contextualized. C: People focus on one line, the refrain..."short people ain't got no reason to live". TMBG: A lot of people don't even get it - people just think it's real, from a guy who doesn't like short people. They don't even know - it's a two dimensional type of audience response that can happen. I feel lucky, in a sense, that we haven't had that kind of success - and I worry that if we ever did have a big hit single, it would be something running along those lines. Being popularly misunderstood...(Timbuk 3's) "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" is another one. It became this sort of frat-boy, creep anthem. C: Wait, wait..you have to slow down - I'm a fraternity person from long ago. TMBG: But your frat was cool, right? C: We pretend to be...certain people in it didn't want to listen to the recycled classic rock of the 70s all day long, and I happen to be one of them. But I understand what you mean. TMBG: It's sort of a Young Republican thing that filtered down to "The Future's So Bright" which is weird, because it's a cynical kind of song. It's hard to write songs and think of how they'll be understood. That's what I wanted to say - I didn't want to just cite "Short People" and have it be misunderstood. C: What were your goals when you were with Bar/None (recording label for the first two albums) and how have they changed now that you're with Elektra, a "major" label? TMBG: That's a difficult question - our goals have always been to make the best records we can. I think people put this great emphasis on how going to a major label is a compromise and how an indie is not a compromise, but from my point of view, it's always a struggle when you're doing this kind of work. You are involved in making records, and just *finishing* a record is a compromise. You're always dealing with other people, a company and in a lot of ways I feel there is very little difference between the two labels. There are lots of really nice people at both labels, they're both helpful. I've never felt compromised being on Elektra, or that we had to change anything. The biggest change we had was between our first album on Bar/None, where there were no expectations and our second album, where all of a sudden we had an audience, and there was a momentum to our career. That was a bigger challenge. C: Where do you get your influences for your writings, to hear others music? TMBG: Friends of ours turn us on to new groups. Being out on the road, you end up meeting a lot of people and seeing a lot of shows as you go along. I think you can't help it; you get caught up in the whole scene, while being on the road. Being in the band also has increased our lexicon of music - we all have diverse tastes in music. C: How do you feel about moshing at shows, either at your shows or in general? TMBG: I have mixed feelings about it. In a sense, I'm flattered by it; I would never have imagined anyone would want to mosh at our shows. But, having done shows where far too many people are moshing, and having seen the entire focus of a show be spoiled by an overexcited group of people, if I had to make one definitive statement, I would say, "Please don't mosh. It takes away from other people's enjoyment". I've seen a lot of people get hurt and I don't want anyone to get hurt at our shows. We take a lot of time out of our days to put on a safe show. We're not ignorant (of the things that can go wrong) and we're involved in our production. When you start having crowds bashing into things, it increases the chances of adversity. Also, I hate feeling like someone's dad - "C'mon people, let's not kick each other in the head" - I don't feel like that's my role, but, at the same time, I don't want to sit there playing songs all night when some drunk guy is kicking people in the head. C: What are your favorite song(s) to play live? TMBG: The songs that I don't sing on at all are fun to play. Playing "Don't Let's Start" is always a gas - it's got a lot of guitars, and everyone knows it and digs it. It's kind of like "The Guitar", they're fun to play. C: Do you still play "Stump-the-Band", where someone hollers out a song and you try to play it? TMBG: We've pretty much eliminated that part of the show. It's just too hard to do anymore. And, at this point, John has to get going. He's got more interviews to do, as the band is about to embark on their United States tour in support of _John Henry_. But, through this interview, it becomes apparent that there is much more to They Might Be Giants than just playing and singing. Flansburgh takes his work very seriously, without giving pat, "safe" responses - his answers come from the heart. The same attitude goes into the band's music - whether it's the bop of "Don't Let's Start" or the full backing on TMBG's most recent single, "Snail Shell", They Might Be Giants are a very serious band with a very fun sound.
Musician magazine review (Nov. 94)
The following is a review of John Henry by J. Kordosh, which we found in the November, 1994 issue of "Musician" magazine.
They Might Be Giants' seemingly inexhaustible supply of good ideas for songs remains seemingly inexaustible. On John Henry (latest in their history of great album titles), Johns Linnell and Flansburgh sing of stuff like thermostats, moon rockets and looking at people in windows.
Stuff, in other words, that is fascinating in a world where Axl Rose is a professional songwriter. Or is that Paul McCartney?
No matter! John Henry shows the Linnell/Flansburgh knack for effortless lyrical slyness continues. And a good thing, too. Not just anyone can sing of subliminalism while the guy in the background is adding, "In an unnoticeable way." Or celebrate James Ensor, "Belgium's famous painter" (oh, yeah--that James ensor), urging us to "Dig him up and shake his hand, appreciate the man." Or sing, presumably with a straight face, "One thousand years old, sure you think that's old."
Yeah, well...good call there, Mr. Flansburgh.
Although John Henry may contain nothing as instantly engaging as "Birdhouse in Your Soul" or "I Palindrome I," it's loaded with songs that will intrigue and reward the careful listener. "No One Knows My Plan" is a festive, jail-breakin', Mexican Hat Dance of a tune; the chime-filled "Destination Moon" ("thank you for the card with the cartoon nurse, but you see there's nothing wrong with me") is infectiously rollicking; "Why Must I Be Sad" looks at the world of one disturbed Alice Cooper fan who writes everything down in a spiral notebook. And we may never know if John Linnell was consciously imitating that guy in Crash Test Dummies when he sang "Window," but wouldn't it be cool if he wasn't? Most compelling of all is "Unrelated Thing," a genuinely wistful look at a relationship gone way, way south. It's the most un-TMBGish song on John Henry--starkly direct--and should be oft-covered.
All told, there's little for me to dislike about this record. The guys who made it are both named John. I myself am named John. I have a son named John. What the hell, even the album's named John!
Could things really be much better?
The picture from the Musician article
The following is an article that appeared in the January 1995 issue of Guitar Player magazine, written by Joe Gore, photo by Michael Halsband.
THEY MIGHT BE NUGENT: John Flansburgh Gets Crunchy"Roadkill in waiting: Giants Linnell, Flansburgh, and a Jerry Jones Longhorn."
For nearly a decade They Might Be Giants--guitarist John Flansburgh and keyboardist John Linnell--have used an 8-track tape recorder for all their live accompaniment. But the manic Brooklyn songwriting duo has lately mutated into a sextet, and Flansburgh has assumed a more muscular style to the suit the instrumentation.
"I"m philosophically opposed to the notion of the 'guitar hero,'" he states. "I'm more into the song hero. But I'm just as big a guitar dweeb as anyone, and the new lineup has refocused me on my role as a guitar player in a head-on rock combo."
The Monty Python of rock bands hasn't abandoned its hyper-kinetic humor, but their latest album, John Henry [Elektra], flaunts a new, riff-fueled swagger. Flansburgh, 34, insists the move isn't out of character: "I am of the '70s generation, after all--I bought more than one Alice Cooper record! I really enjoyed experimenting with things like tuning down three half-steps or moving into simpler voicings with a more saturated sound, trying to play simpler and bolder."
Flansburgh even exhibits the direst early-warning sign of retro-rock fever: a Les Paul. "I held off on making the Gibson leap because of its Lear Jet rock star image," he laughs, "but it just works so well. Actually, Joey Santiago of the Pixies opened my eyes to the fact you can make those big Les Paul/Marshall sounds without being a creep."
Flansburgh's new riffs have a thick, overdubbed sound, yet Flansburgh did little double-tracking. "I modified the old Ted Nugent trick of doubling the same rhythm part and panning it out hard left and right," he explains. "We'd run a single guitar signal through two very different speakers and pan them left and right. Most of the record is a late-'70s Les Paul of little distinction through a Fender Deluxe and my dad's crummy old hi-fi speaker. It sounds like Siamese twins playing the same part. It lets us keep the vocals at pop-record volume but still have that heavy, quasi-overdubbed sound."
Newfound crunch aside, John Henry jumps genres as feverishly as any of the group's past albums; if the duo had better voices and a worse sense of humor, they'd be awash in Beatles comparisons. Says Flansburgh, "The Beatles were such a big part of our background that its hard to figure out where they stop and where everythign else takes off. They were the perfect example of a pop group that would do every sort of music that worked with their combo, and even some that didn't. People love Kiss nowadays, but the Beatles are better. Hey, even Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies kicks ass on any Kiss album!"
Sassy article (March,1990)
What Do Giants Eat?
by Karen Catchpole (Sassy)
French toast, of course. And that's just one of the things I learned when I breakfasted with a couple of intrepid musicians called They Might Be Giants.
"You don't expect rock stars to cook for themselves, let alone for you. I mean, just try and picture Michael Hutchence whipping you up a little cheese-and-mushroom omelette. Or Bobby Brown working the kinks out of his spinach souffle. So when John Flansburgh and John Linnell (equal halves of the band They Might Be Giants) invited me 'round to Flansburgh's oh-so-bachelor-like apartment in Brooklyn for homemade french toast, I was a tad taken aback. But I turned up at noon good and hungry anyway.
First of all, that name: They Might Be Giants. While Flansburgh and Linnell might be many things, large is definitely not one of them. The average-size duo is actually titled after a '70s flick starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward that also has nothing to do with excessively tall people. "It's about how insanity is groovy. It was the insanity-chic period of cinema," Linnell explains like he's giving a book report. "It's one of those 'Who's crazy?' movies," the more spontaneous Flansburgh jumps in, adjusting his black-rimmed glasses. "'Who belongs in the asylum? The crazy people or the people who aren't crazy?'"
It's a question the two Johns are still trying to unravel, but only in their ever-decreasing spare time. See, while They Might Be Giants may have started out small, they've ended up big: In the past seven years they've gone from playing some of New York City's divier dives to conquering college radio stations across the country (always a good sign) to successfully maneuvering the leap from an independent record label (Bar None) to one you may even have heard of (Elektra). And this year brings the release of their third album, Flood, which just can't help but make the band giant for real.
Like their previous efforts (the self-titled They Might Be Giants and Lincoln), Flood offers a busload of songs that manage to make learning fun. Their unpretentious lyrics firmly encourage you to use your brain ("Everybody wants a rock to wind a string around," for example). At the same time, the innovative blend of prerecorded percussion, Linnell's ukulele and accordion solos and Flansburgh's guitar work is making your feet move. So you can think and dance. Or just dance. Or just think and smile to yourself.
Personally, I smile to myself a lot when I listen to my TMBG tapes, and found myself positively beaming in the band's presence, mainly because that tossed salad of seriousness and jolliness is the happy truth about The Giants as people too. So you have to grin. Especially when Linnell (who's like that enigmatic guy in the back row of history class who looks like he's either thinking deep or not thinking at all) is earnestly explaining how that two of them evenly share the work and the glory, while the immensely huggable Flansburgh is handing you coffee in a paper cup (didn't I tell you it was a bachelor pad?).
All this mischief started back in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where Flansburgh, now 29, and Linnell, 30, hooked up in high school. "John was always calling me up, and I didn't know who he was really," Linnell explains. "He'd call and go, 'So. Linnell. What's happenin'?'" If Linnell was drawn to Flansburgh by his outgoingness (is that a word?), Flansburgh was equally drawn to Linnell by his maturity. "It always seemed like he was farther along in every way," says Flansburgh. "He knew all this groovy alternative music I'd never heard of."
What finally clinched their relationship, however, was that they were both working on the school newspaper. "The paper was kind of a red herring," remembers Linnell, who was actually the herring's editor. "We had an office, which meant we could go hang out there. We had a smelly sofa and stuff to play with. Some of the articles were good, but it never seemed like that was the point. I didn't write too many articles. I mostly crossed out bad grammar."
"It was like, 'We declare a high school newspaper with no sports section,'" adds Flansburgh, looking so nostalgic I half expect him to whip out his yearbook. "We had this complete declaration of kookaholicness." Unfortunately, the school administration was a lot less kooky and decreed that the sports section must remain. Perhaps to vent, Linnell and a few other friends started an underground comic book. "We did this centerfold thing of us dressed as Nazis saying we were gonna make some changes in the school," says Linnell. Flansburgh was impressed. "The very foundation of my respect for Linnell is based on that totally suspect cartoon," he says, smiling. Linnell practically blushes.
Years later the two were still friends, working at rather odd jobs (Linnell was a bike messenger, and Flansburgh swears he was once paid to count commuters in NYC's Grand Central Station). "When we decided to put a band together it was because there was this bass player who lived in the building we were both living in Brooklyn," Linnell explains. "He said, 'Let's make a band.' John and I would never have admitted that that was something we actually wanted to do, but suddenly it seemed groovy. We never performed, but we felt like a band because we practiced our three songs over and over."
This three-man, three-song band ultimately disintegrated, leaving the much more prolific duo, which kept right on writing heaps of tunes despite the conspicuous absence of a record deal. In an effort to get their work heard by someone--anyone--Flansburgh invented the world's first Dial-A-Song phone line, which is still thriving (1-718-387-6962, if you're interested) and continues to feature a new song every 24 hours. "Some days we get about a bizillion calls," estimates Flansburgh, with typical precision. "And some of the songs aren't, like, the greatest things in the world."
It's not just phone calls they're getting lots of: For the band's current multi-country tour to support Flood, TMBG's touring troupe has doubled to four whole crew members and two plushly appointed Ford Econolines. But, says, Flansburgh, "the pleasure of being on the road is sort of odd. There's something stupid about doing so much traveling because you can't really take stuff in." They do their best, however, particularly when it comes to giant-size attractions. "There's a famous incident of us during our last tour wearing Burger King crowns and fighting with the crew about whether we should drive one mile out of our way to see the worlds largest chair in Thomasville, North Carolina," Linnell says. This sends Flansburgh off in search of his official TMBG tour Polaroids, hoping to find a snap of the aforementioned monstrosity. (No luck, but I did see just about every dressing room they've ever dressed in.)
Wherever they are, though, the Giants are building even more of their tunes. "Because we're a two-man band, we use a lot of technology-type things like computers and synthesizers," explains Flansburgh, as I eyeball the mounds of heavy black equipment set up in his living room/recording studio. "We put the parts to the songs together at home [each one write the songs that he'll sing on the album!], so we come to the studio more prepared than other bands. That's probably why we don't sound quite like regular studio records."
Their unconventional sound is just part of the reason the band's fans--you, me and about a million others dotting the globe--keep the mail pouring in. Flansburgh and Linnell estimate they get a few hundred listener letters a month, and they answer every single one themselves. "We don't have form letters or anything," Flansburgh says, sounding sort of chagrined that I would even ask. "We just write a note thanking them for the letter and answer one question." Then there are those fans who get special treatment. Like the girl who wrote to complain that her local record store didn't sell one of the band's tapes. So Flansburgh sent her one. And the fan letter from Japan that Linnell answered. In Japanese.
By this point I've finished eating and come to a conclusion: So maybe Flansburgh and Linnell aren't really 12 feet tall. But what these guys lack in literal giganticness, they make up for in niceness and humor and brilliance and talent and something of a flair for french toast. And they didn't even make me do the dishes
People magazine, June, 20, 1988
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, WHO, ON THE OTHER HAND, MIGHT JUST BE HOT
ROCK AND ROLL NERDS FROM BROOKLYN
Granted, it's easy to get confused about a mock-arty-garage-polka-metal-country rock duo whose very name implies uncertainty: They Might Be Giants. Given that situation, John Flansburgh, the bespectled Giant, would like to set the record straight about the band's purpose. "We like playing fun rock music, for the love of it," says Flansburgh, 28. "We only pretend to have a plan for world domination." That windy sound you hear is, no doubt, Mikhail Gorbachev breathing a sigh of relief. But the Giants are serious about not taking rock seriously. "Rock is just about the biggest dinosaur around," says co-Giant John Linnell, also 28. "It's nice to listen to, but it's got this bloated aspect to it that has to be deflated."
Their opening slavo against the corporate rock monster was last year's They Might Be Giants LP, a 19-song cannonade fired by a popgun--tiny, New Jersey-based Bar/None Records. Forty-three minutes of quirk rock that veers from teh ridiculous ("YOuth culture killed my dog...the hip-hop and the white funk just blew away my puppy's mind") to the more ridiculous ("There's only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third"), the album has generated good reviews ("hyperverbal and seriously funny," quoth the New York Times), a strong cult following and 100, 000 sales. Okay, okay; as Linnell says, "That doesn't sound like much in a Van Halen world." But it's not bad for two guys who wear four-foot-tall fezzes onstage and market their music by playing snatches of new songs on a telephone answering machine (718-387-6962). When pressed, the Giants admit to sincere attempts at craftsmanship--"There's strong melodies in most of what we do; it's our secret weapon," says Flansburgh--and are also quick to point out the importance of their tape-recorded rhythm tracks. "At first we taped because we couldn't afford a live drummer," says Linnell. Adds Flansburgh: "Now we do it because we can use strange rhythms and not worry about the drummer's head exploding."
The Giants grew up, to normal heights--Linnell is 5'10'', Flansburgh 5'11"--in Lincoln, Mass., and were childhood friends. "We grew long hair in 1968 and became [8-year-old] hippie children," Flansburgh says. "Then we cut it in 1977 and joined the punk people." Linnell, whose father is a psychiatrist and whose mother is a poet, spent a year at the University of Massachusetts and three years with a band called the Mundanes. Flansburgh, whose father is an architect and whose mother founded Boston-by-Foot tours, played in several "hobby bands" and earned a B.F.A. in printmaking from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.
When the pair coincidentally moved into separate apartments in the same Brooklyn building on the same day in 1981, they decided fate meant for them to take a Giant step. Billed as "El Groupo de Rock and Roll," they debuted before 30 non-English-speaking Sandinista supporters at a 1982 rally. By 1984 they had lifted their current name from a 1972 George C. Scott movie about a lawyer who believes he is Sherlock Holmes.
Supporting themselves with "slave jobs"--Linnell was a bike messenger, Flansburgh a people counter in Grand Central Station--they played "the lowest rung of Manhatten clubs" before developing the kind of following that allows them, nowadays, to afford to stay at a Motel 6 when they tour. Both Giants regard the typical rock star excesses--cheap women and expensive cars--as shallow, decadent and, lamentably, out of reach. "We're willing to sleep with beautiful women," says Flansburgh hopefully (the Giants are single). "ah, the Cr
e, they're livin' the dream," adds Linnell, with perhaps less than perfect sincerity.
Doggedly pursuing their own slightly skewed dream, the Giants have just released a five-song EP (She Was a) Hotel Detective and are about to embark on a West Coast tour, which may increase public comprehension of their world view. "As hard as it is to explain the band, audiences get it right away," Flansburgh says. "They don't go, 'Oh, you're just like Mick Jagger.' They go, 'Oh, you're just like my brother.'" And even if TMBG doesn't kick Van Halen off teh charts, they have already begun to nudge at least one top pop star. "They Might Be Giants is available now in shopping mall record stores, under the Ts," Flansburgh says with pride. "Right next to Tiffany."
--by Steve Dougherty
There you are click remote in hand click flipping through the stations click always coming back to click MTV, which lately seems to stand for Mindlessly Tedious Videos. Oh, no, not another Robert Palmer glassy-eyed, glossy-lipped vapid-female video. Just when you're baout to change the channel one more time...yo! What is this? Look closer. Two adorable guys romping and stomping their way through a totally rockin' song with lyrics like "I don't want the world/I just want your half." They might look like your nerdy science teacher, but they act like the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night.
In case you've been in a cave for the last year or haven't watched TV, listened to the radio, or opened a magazine, what you're watching is the latest vid from They Might Be Giants, the newest heartthrobs in the music world. The song is their hit single, Ana Ng, which carries the distinction of having knocked U2's Desire out of first place in the college charts. This bittersweet love song is from their second album, Lincoln, which is definitely going for the gold as it makes its way toward half a million records sold.
The reason TMBG is so popular among the intellectual set is because John Flansburgh, 28, and John Linnell, 29, the dynamic duo who make up the band, are kind of like a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. Huh? No, seriously, they are the perfect combination of smart and goofy, funny and satirical, creative and very cool. In other words, they are quite possibly the weirdest people on the scene today. But hey, let's be honest: What more could you ask for in a rock band?
They Might Be Giants started out small, of course, when Flansburgh (the one with the glasses) and Linnell (the other one) met in elementary school in the Boston suburb of Lincoln, Massachusetts. "We weren't really good friends until high school," says Flansburgh. "Linnell is a year older than me, and in school that's like being in a different generation."
After graduation, Linnell, the product of a psychiatrist father and an artist mother, studied music for a year, then moved to Rhode Island to play keyboards with a rock band, the Mundanes. Flansburgh, whose father is an architect and whose mother gives walking tours of Boston, tranferred from college to college, doing the university shuffle. During this time he taught himself to play the guitar. "I was working in a parking lot, which is a great place to learn the guitar. I sat in the booth and practiced all day long. And only two cars were stolen while I worked there."
It was in 1981, says Linnell, that "we really cast our lots together" when they each moved into the same Brooklyn apartment building on the same day--one John with his accordion, the other with his guitar. The desire to make music together was strong, but the backup band was nonexistent. Enter a drum machine and a tape recorder. After a few months of practice, they copped the unusual name of an obscure George C. Scott movie, and They Might Be Giants was born.
As for the TMBG sound, their music covers a full range from psycho polka to kooky country to classic pop. Their enigmatic lyrics have the annoying habit of making you try to understand them. Fro example, how do you interpret, "Wake up and smell the cat food in your bank account/ But don't tyr to stop the tail that wags the hound"? Or, "He wants a shoehorn, teh kind with teeth/People shuodl get beat up, for stating their beliefs"? Even their titles, like Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head, Youth Culture Killed My Dog, and Hope I Get Old Before I Die, are enough to make a normal person squirm.
Well, get ready to do some seriosu squirming, folks, because TMBG has just signed a seven-record deal with Elektra. Will they have trouble coming up with enough songs to fill such a huge order? Not a problem, according to the verbose ones. "It sounds like a lot of work," says Flansburgh, "But with three hundred songs already written..." Right. Not a problem.
But what about that crazy little thing called love? It doesn't sound as if they have a lot of time to devote to girlfriends at this point. "The easiest way to smash up a relationship is by going away on tour for three months," explain the forever-touring Giants. "It's like, 'Hey, I had a really good time on this date. I'll be back next January.' It really doesn't work, but it's not the end of the world, either."
As for the other, more glitzy, options that often accompany fame, like (horrors) TV shows or (even worse) Top 40, these GIants ain't biting. "We are not very good actors," points out Flansburgh. "And we just wouldn't work well in the slick pop scene," continues Linnell. "For now, we just want to keep doing the things we do well."
Whatever they do, we know by now not to expect teh expected from They Might Be Giants. "The reason we work well together," says Linnell, "is that we still have a lot of surprises left for each other." Just wait until you hear what they have planned for the rest of us.
by Stuart P. Broz Staff Writer Tulane Hullabaloo firstname.lastname@example.org December 9, 1994 is well in the past now, so, if you didn't spend that Friday evening at the House of Blues, there's really nothing you can do about having missed They Might Be Giants. The show was spectacular; energetic, entertaining, and often hilarious. Before the concert, I had the opportunity to sit down with John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the duo who, over a decade ago, began to refer to themselves as They Might Be Giants. The two Johns were nice enough to come uptown to Tulane to be interviewed. I found them to be personable and, to be honest, a lot less strange than I had expected. Before we started, I gave them a brief tour of the offices of the Hullabaloo. Flansburgh: It sort of reminds me of the high school newspaper office John and I used to work in. Hullabaloo: You went to high school together? Flansburgh: Yeah, we did. We worked on the high school paper. That's kind of how we got to know each other. . . It was sort of this small clique of people who mostly just needed a room to hang out in. That was a lot of the reason why the paper existed. We also just liked writing. Hullabaloo: What sort of things did you write? Linnell: A lot of music reviews. A certain amount of current topical stuff connected with the school. . . There was a certain amount of interest in being provocative for its own sake . . . which is typical in high school. Flansburgh: I remember ghostwriting some sports reviews. . . sports news stories. There was some basic information there, but I remember really expanding and editorializing on games I had never seen. . . making them really colorful. Linnell: Our best issues were always the April Fool's issues, because then we could actually lie. Hullabaloo: You said you wrote music reviews. What sort of music were you interested in at the time? Flansburgh: Well, it was the mid seventies, so it was sort of pre-punk rock. I remember right in the middle of my high school life I started going to rock clubs and seeing local bands at the Rat. . . which was pretty influential. Linnell: In some ways it was a pretty different time. The bigness of rock was really there. Now, I think one of the really positive trickle-down effects of the grunge era is that it has revitalized the idea that being in a crummy little band is a positive thing, but I sort of feel like the first half of my high school experience that there was a rock-hero thing. I mean even David Bowie - who was somebody I liked - also seemed very much like a rock star, and the other bands that were smaller and not as popular. . like a band like Sparks - which was a glitter rock band who I thought were kind of cool - they seemed to aspire to be really, really big. Whereas the bands I saw play in the Rat. . . there was something gloriously low key about the whole deal. It was a small audience, for one thing, so it was undeniable that these bands - they were sort of culturally important, but they weren't reaching for the charts. You liked their music, but it wasn't like they were going to be knocking Elton John off the charts next week. . . which is not necessarily the case now. Green Day actually is knocking Phil Collins off the chart. The effect of Green Day is that a lot of other people feel empowered to be in bands. Hullabaloo: Where you in bands in high school? Flansburgh: John was in. . . Linnell: Yeah, I was in a couple. I played sax in a band that did Alice Cooper covers. . . stuff like that, if that makes any sense. Hullabaloo: A little, but not much. What about you? Flansburgh: No, no. I didn't start playing until the very end of high school. The beginning of college is when I really started, when I could actually play more than three strings at a time. Hullabaloo: Where did you go to college? Flansburgh: I went to a bunch of different schools. I ended up at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. . . which is what brought me to New York in the early eighties, and that was sort of when the band started. We were both living in this apartment building and started sharing equipment, and it just evolved into this thing where we were playing on each other's songs. Eventually, we realized that we could perform as a duo. A friend of ours was actually doing a one-man show with drum machines. We were perfectly happy to have it sort of be this living-room project. We would just record songs and play them for our friends and express ourselves and get it out of our system, but the performance bug caught up with us after about a year or so of just recording, so we started playing in these clubs, these sort of showcase clubs, in downtown Manhattan. We were playing with a lot of cover bands who did things like Beatles songs. Like a guy who's working as a dentist and has a band on the weekend or something like that. It was pretty crummy. . . and then the New York scene exploded with a lot of creative bands and a lot of performance art clubs that had, like, transvestites on the bar and four different performances a night. It was very sort of hopped up, super-wild New York experience. It was probably the closest I feel like I will ever come to feeling like part of a scene. There were a bunch of clubs that had live entertainment every night. It was getting a lot of attention, and it seemed different. There was a lot of crossover between, you know, people who had been in punk rock bands and people who were in experimental theater and people who were involved in other art-scene related things doing live performance. It would either be musical or just like. . . transgressive entertainment. A lot of it was really just for the people who were right there, which is different than what I've seen in general. A lot of times, New York is like. . . people doing their showcase to producers. What was different about the Lower East Side scene in the mid eighties was that it was really just people doing shows for their friends, and so it was very lively. Linnell: One thing about that scene is that it was different than what had just happened. One of the reasons we were both in New York in the early eighties was that it had seemed to establish a reputation as a place where there was a lot of stuff going on just recently in the late seventies. That scene had pretty much folded up by the time we got there - which was the sort of Ramonesy, new-wavy, punky scene which was really one - even though the bands were very diverse - there was a particular idea connected with all those bands which was a very do-it-yourself sort of thing. Hullabaloo: It seems like it was a very transitional period. Linnell: Yeah, yeah. I mean at the time it seemed. . . but in retro- spect it seems like it wasn't as unified as it seemed at the time. The thing about the performance scene of the mid eighties that we felt like we sort of stuck our foot into was that it was even less unified. It was obviously not unified to us at the time. It was not even a single scene. The thing that defined it was that there were a lot of bands and performers and things that had nothing to do with each other which were all something you could produce in a little room with. . . What am I trying to say? There was no rationale for it. It was just anything goes. It was actually much more anything goes than the punk scene, which actually had a real formal basis. There was a real dress code. There was a real idea of what was in and what was out. The performance scene was really perfect for us because it didn't have that feeling of restriction. We were on the bill with things that had nothing to do with us whatsoever. Flansburgh: It seemed almost that the point was that variety was a positive thing . . .which actually has a nice quality to it. . . but there was a lot of stuff that was pretty grotesque too. Linnell: A lot of things were done to offend our parents who would occasionally come to New York and check out what we were doing and inevitably see something else on the same bill that was totally offensive. Flansburgh: Yeah, it would have been offensive to Jeffrey Dahmer... some of that stuff was really beyond the pale. Hullabaloo: Speaking of the grotesque, what's with the recent fascination with skulls in your albums? Linnell: It's actually not that recent, it goes back to. . . Flansburgh: . . . The Dawn of Skulls. . . Linnell: Originally, well. . . It seems like we've always had skulls in our work. We've probably had more visual skulls in the last two records. We've had pictures of skulls and songs about skulls, but you know this is one of these things. . . We put twenty songs on every record. There is a limited number of objects you can talk about. Flansburgh: We drag a lot of nouns in there. Linnell: We pretty much cover the animal kingdom, death and skulls, modes of transportation. . . a lot of modes of transportation, including spaceships, but even much more pedestrian ones, too. Hullabaloo: Uh, huh. So, back when you guys started out. . . were you doing the same sorts of things as you are now? Linnell: In a certain way. . . As far as the spirit of what we were doing was defined by what we were into, and we didn't have this idea of like 'we are a reggae project.' We didn't define what we were doing except that it was our own bag, and we haven't really changed that in that way. We still don't have a real genre set up for ourselves. We just do the kind of stuff we're into, and, obviously, there's a general rock-center to it, and there's a certain set of things that we're limited by what we can do. So that's what defines it more or less. . . but, unlike other bands that we've both been in, we didn't have this clear idea of what we were doing. Flansburgh: On our earliest demos, you can really hear this overwhelming Residents influence. I think that in a lot of ways we were inspired by them in the way they put themselves forward. They're like a faceless band, and they don't have any public persona which is. . . obviously we. . . people know what we look like a little bit more, but I think the idea of having the freedom to write a song and create points of view that are not linked to a persona is of interest to us. On our first record there were a lot more odd-voices singing songs. They are really coming from a more extreme place, and, as time has gone on, I think we've kind of cooled that out a little bit, and its hard to say. . . it's really part of what we do. It's always been there. It's on "Extra Savoire-Faire" on our current record. It's not a personal song in any way. It's a complete character song. Part of it is like. . . I think we toned it down because on repeat listenings the funny voices don't really hold up as nicely as a more straight performance, but also I think we do realize that we're going to perform these songs, and they are linked up to our personalities a little bit. There is something very powerful about writing from an anonymous point of view. You know, listening to a song off our second album called "You'll Miss Me," which is a really extreme and ugly song, I don't know if I'd feel compelled to write something as grotesque now because it would just be like, "oh, he's doing something really gross." I mean, you're very free to explore things when nobody knows who you are, and they're not going to say "Oh, its that guy." It's a weird sort of restriction once you become a known. . . I don't know maybe it's too complicated a point to get across. I think that we could certainly return to that kind of material if we wanted to. I don't really see any reason to stop it. . . being grotesque. One thing. . . getting back to the influence of the Residents. They seemed very disconnected to a lot of conventions of pop, and at the same time there's something very formal, almost excessively formal, in what they were doing even though it was like . . . the music to us probably seemed very primitive in the way it doesn't connote any exoticism...they weren't on some sort of safari. There were just very simple rhythms, and they were saying stuff that seemed very real. So maybe that's still something that seems important. That's a good thing for any band. It makes what you're saying seem much more fresh when it's not in the service of something you've already heard that's being more refined this time around. Hullabaloo: So, with John Henry, your new album, the two of you are no longer alone. You now have a full band. How does that work out? Have you had any problems with the transition? Flansburgh: We've been doing this thing for like ten years, so it runs like most bands in the sense that we're the band leaders. That is sort of established, and what probably makes it a little bit more comfortable is that it is clearly established and we're the songwriters in the band. It's been a pretty positive experience. It's challenged us, John and I , in a bunch of different ways that have probably actually helped us. For one thing, we end up playing a lot more than we've ever played before. We rehearse a lot more. That's really changed our. . . I never thought of us as being lazy, but we used to rehearse for just an hour a night. It was just the two of us, and it seemed like we had it pretty much under control. Now we rehearse, you know, five to six hours a day for days in a row. It really has brought up our performing. Beyond that, I think that the song writing is pretty much coming from the same place. There are certain things that the band can do really effectively and very quickly that definitely comes across on the recordings. The loud songs are sort of more. . . they just rock harder, and the quiet songs have a nice dynamic quality to them. It's interesting, because Apollo 18 was probably the most full-blown MIDI record that we could have made. There is a real sonic range on it that is very exciting. . . but in a totally different direction. You're sort of trading one set of advantages and limitations off for another. Both formats have a lot to recommend them. They're both unlimited if you feel they're unlimited. They both offer a lot. At this point, Flansburgh looked at his watch and asked if he could use the telephone. After a brief argument with the taxi dispatcher, the two of them excused themselves in order to make it back to the House of Blues in time for their sound-check.